October 15, 2015

No-Judgement Zone

So....I have seen many students this week, but this post is about two of them, both of whom are students at public schools that have pretty amazing orchestra programs.

While these two young people are very different, their similarity is that both of them are now plagued by upcoming "seating auditions" that are called "playing tests".    In these two lessons, I found both of these students talking down on themselves.

On Wednesday, I was able to tell a student to simply focus on practicing, taking the advice of his teacher, and being unattached to the outcome.  

On Thursday, however, I found myself confronted with the issues of self-esteem that really do plague students who are in high-level, competitive environments.    Here's how it went down:

Teacher: Why did you stop?
Student: Because it sounded really bad.|
Teacher: Okay - first, it didn't sound bad, you simply made a mistake. Second. Do you watch television? Do you see commercials and advertisements?
Student: Yes.
Teacher: So you've seen the ads for Planet Fitness, right?
Student (starting to laugh): Yes.
*Teacher goes to the dry erase board, picks up the pen, and starts writing*
Teacher: Like Planet Fitness, this is a JUDGEMENT FREE ZONE! Stop judging yourself!
*student laughs*

Interestingly enough, these encounters with students have reminded me of a time at Rice University when, after playing the Fourth Sonata of Eugene Ysaye (at that time, the most difficult piece I had played in my life) in a lesson, my teacher made my lay down on the floor.

Teacher:   "Well, you got through it..."

Me:   "Yeah, and it sounded like CRAP!"

Teacher:   "No, it didn't sound like CRAP.   Breathe a little and then we'll get to work."

Teaching, while a noble profession, is also a HEALING profession (at least for me).  How many years during high school did I hear that I have to practice hours and hours because of people in another city?   How many years of hearing the competitive rhetoric did I experience, which shaped me years ago yet led to (as may of us have experienced yet refuse to acknowledge) a warped sense of self-esteem?    

It's about the work.   It's about the day to day that we do.   THAT's what we have to impart as educators, and maybe that is what we as educators need to remember....the results are secondary, yet the results are the the results of the day-to-day everyday work and very focused attention to the craft....

More soon,

October 8, 2015

On Teaching

“Teaching is only demonstrating that it is possible. Learning is making it possible for yourself.”
- Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage

Well....here we are.    A few weeks ago I found myself itching to write after reading an NPR article about the latest release from a duo known as Black Violin.   While I MAY still write that - after all, I'm still thinking about it - I'm choosing not to at this time because, well, I'm tired.   Tired.   Existentially tired of the accepted narrative that Americans of the African Diaspora cannot have a true place in the field of classical music, and that the only viable way that we can have a face in the world of musicmaking is to delve into "classical fusion".   Furthermore, I am still thinking of a way to write in which I shall not belittle or patronize the work that these men have done - after all, they have released recordings, and I have not, and it is not my intention to write in a manner that invalidates their work as all creativity is valuable and should be recognized as such.

What I write about today is teaching.

In 2012, the Delaware Symphony ceased operations for half of a season.  This of course sent many of us on a scramble, and while that was stressful it has been truly delightful to see the unfolding of new directions taken on by my colleagues.    Sometimes destiny is the result of "overwhelming necessity".

For me?    That was a strange time in many ways, and to earn money I decided to start teaching.    This did NOT go well at first, as my first assignment turned into something both fractious and unprofitable.    One year later, however, I began teaching in Baltimore at the Arti-st Learning Center, and it was during that year that I discovered that I love teaching and working with young people.   It was during that year that I started sharing Facebook posts that chronicled conversations between teacher and student, and was again reminded that the art of teaching is not subjective.

Flash forward to 2015, and while I have left the Arti-st Learning Center and am now teaching both at the Bryn Mawr School for Girls in Baltimore and the Main Street Music Studios in Fairfax, I find myself with sixteen students, all at different levels.   This has been a journey, one in which I find myself having a much deeper appreciation for those teachers who were patient with me for so many years as well as understanding the "no-nonsense" way of being that a few of them possessed.   Furthermore, as I have stepped back a bit from the performing world to focus on teaching and rebuilding my violinistic foundation, I have found that teaching - and not teaching simply to earn my keep - is one of the most rewarding, revealing, and enlightening professions, one through which I can see my own weaknesses and address them while helping a generation of young people look critically yet lovingly at themselves in the spirit of continuous improvement.

More from the studio,


August 27, 2015

Ten Years Later.....

Okay - I have been wary of posting this as I realize on the most profound levels both that Hurricane Katrina is a sensitive topic and that many of us who were directly affected are still dealing, riding the wave of life changes. Nevertheless, here I go:
Two months before Katrina I was given a most beautiful painting by David Harouni. It has been one of my life goals (yes) to find the perfect place for that painting, and I am now living in that place.
While I do find myself conflicted, I would like to take this time to share some gratitude as over the past ten years I have encountered people and had life experiences that have been tremendous:
Peter M. Webster and Mary Lou Aleskie: thank you. It was through the two of you that I was introduced to Alternate ROOTS.
Saddi: the man whose mission is to make us (as people of the diaspora) see ourselves beautiful again. There are too many words....
Voice: Uknowhowwedu...
Carlton: one of the most brilliant minds that I have ever encountered.
Margo: I love you.
Linda: I owe you another day of out of tune singing. Thank you - being a part of Carpetbag Theatre changed my life.
Deborah and Peter: I will never be able to thank you enough....
Kimberly and Ertan: you housed a tired, weary man, did the right things and made the right calls.
Tom: Bless you.
Keryl: "Make sure that you live life and don't let life live you." Wise words said in 2009 that I carry to this day.
Lisa, S.T.: thank you.
Renee: how many "mamas" do I have? You're one of them, and all I can say is keep doing what you do and keep sending the advice.
Michelle: I've only seen you dance once, but long to see more.
Evelyn, Kelly, Madeline, Odin: thank you all so much for the past year and the reworking of the bowarm. I only hope that I can continue to take your advice and continue to grow stronger.
Laurie: thank you for your compassion and for having startedviolinist.com.
Chris: *fistbump*
Tayloe: Thank you for taking two chances.
Mei; When can we play together again, eh?
Michelle: When can we play together again?
Jeri: For all that you are and all that you do in the world.
Robin: For being all of who you are, and for teaching through your life and recent experiences about true love.
Elena: Carpools to Delaware...and more.
Sage: your steadfast friendship, love of House, and a particular walk at Lutherridge in 2009.
W Terry: your friendship over the past ten years and especially during this transitional year.
Ari: for cooking, showing me how to let go, and showing me how to ask for guidance.
Evangeline: for doing the right thing
Tracy Steele: for remaining a steadfast friend....
Tanya; for bringing me to Toronto...
Thomas: I will always love you.
Barbara: Thank you for always encouraging me to follow my heart.
To the one who left: Thank you Would my life have opened up so much had I stayed with you and you with me?
To the other one: Deepest apologies, as we met during a time that I was not clear.....but I'm clear now....
Mildred, Steven, Gemal: thank you for taking the time to show real concern and for doing REAL work!
Jorja: you told me to keep writing - did we have any idea that I would become a "blogger"?!
Luca: The future is still unwritten, but you've been 100% spot on since we met.
Alternate ROOTS: thank you for making my trip to Italy possiblie.
Kari: my friend, my love, my trainer, my coach, my inspriation
Lauren: you saved me in 2009.....thank you.
Katie: Great Noise, Great Noise.....
David: so many talks....
Craig: Yoga is a part of my life again....
Jazzy and Aisha: What can I say? You are both tremedous and I'm humbled to be included as a part of the family....
Dasha: how one meeting during which you spoke directly to my soul resulted in "Almost Crimson"...
Paul: Need I say anything?
Stephanie: for January 2014 and teaching me about the apartment approval process.
Stephanie: your light, your dancing, and the reopening of the Circle market. YOU are a heroine!
Armenta Hummings: thank you for understanding.
Lee: for the opportunity to have made two debuts in Charleston.
Drew and Holly: such great people, always willing to lend ears and share thoughts on the business.

If I really thought about everyone, there would not be space to write and the Interwebs would crash....

June 17, 2015

At The Top of His Game: Odin Rathnam and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto

In one of the many interviews that photographer Peter Lindbergh has given during his life he spoke of the group of five women that became known as "supermodels" and his continued work with those women over the last twenty-five years, commenting on both the fact that they (Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Tatjana Patitz) have all become more multifaceted and interesting people over time.  

As musicians, we are particularly lucky in that as we form and maintain friendships, we have opportunities to witness all of the highs and lows that make up "this thing called life", and that witnessing includes moments during which we find ourselves so pleased to see tremendous musical and spiritual growth.   May 10, 2015 was definitely that kind of day, as it was on that day that I went to hear the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra, one of the finest ensembles in the Northeast Corridor.    

The first surprise of this day was seeing Tatiana Chulochnikova, a violinist whom I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing in 2009 at the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute.   During those two weeks six years ago, Tanya (as she is affectionately known to her friends) showed herself to be an eager, humble soul, playing in every master class and later having a last-minute opportunity to play as concertmaster for the last concert of the session - which included, within twenty-four hours, studying repertoire and being able to improvise cadenzas for large baroque orchestral works.    Now living in the Washington DC/Baltimore region, Tanya is a member of the Four Nations Ensemble and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra in addition to playing concerts throughout North America.

My reason for going to this concert, however, was to hear violinist Odin Rathnam, a man who I have known since 2010 via Facebook and "real-time" since 2011 when I heard him play the Korngold Violin Concerto with the American Youth Philharmonic and Philadelphia Virtuosi music director Daniel Spalding.    From that time until now, Odin and I have spoken about violin playing, musicmaking, psychology and countless other subjects, and I must say that I am pleased to be included as one of his friends – a friendship that is both dear and definitely not built on "public relations".   Over the past five years Odin has not only championed my writing and shared advice on how to approach this stage of my musical life:   he has generously and earnestly helped me to understand and integrate bow arm principles taught by Boris Kuchnir that Odin learned from his longtime friend and collaborator Nikolaj Znaider.

In the years that I have known Odin I have heard him perform the concerti of Korngold, Brahms, and Beethoven in addition to this day’s Mendelssohn.    There is no denying Mr. Rathnam’s commitment to the craft of music making:   the praise that he has received for his “captivating temperament” and “brilliant technique” is not empty, and I am continuously impressed by the profundity of Odin’s grasp of the totality of any composer’s musical language.    This Mendelssohn concerto was one of the most technically complete and well-conceived readings that I have heard, a performance highlighted by a most spacious second movement and a brilliant yet controlled final Allegro.  Odin Rathnam showed himself to be at the height of his violinistic and musical powers on that Sunday afternoon, and Markand Thakar and the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra were the perfect partners on that journey.

March 19, 2015

From Charleston Today....

While I thought that this was posted in November 2013, well, here we are:

What a surprise it was to come home and find that one of the concerts at the Colour of Music Festival was reviewed!   Many thanks to writer Peter Ingle for taking the time to come, and especially to Hassan Anderson, Audrey Harris and Kenneth Law for what was a wonderful performance of the Britten Phantasy Quartet during the inaugural season of the festival!

You can read the review here:  Charleston Today

March 17, 2015

Flashback: The Sharan Nixon Show!

A dear friend of mine shared this with me tonight - this interview was definitely a surprise, and as you listen you will hear that this seemed to be more of a lovely and easy "dinner conversation"!    Many thanks to Sharan, the founder of Baltimore Fashion Week, for this opportunity!

March 9, 2015

Bach, Being Convinced, and Opening Ears

Let's hear it for the power of social networking and social media, as I was recently invited to attend the most recent concert presented by The Spire Series, one which featured New York City Ballet Orchestra concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen performing unaccompanied works by J. S. Bach.   Having lived in Baltimore more or less full time since 2010, I find that I am still learning much about this city and the wide range of artistic and cultural activities available here.    As The Spire Series is a "new-to-me" series, of course I went, and it was even more fulfilling to have a student and his mother come along with me.

The Spire Series is presented at First and Franklin Presbyterian Church, a stunning Gothic Revival church in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore, and was the perfect venue for this performance that included both Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor and Sonata No. 3 in C Major.

As musicians, as with anyone living on the planet, it is vital that we keep our eyes and ears open (as I type this I recall a conversation with a friend during which he shared that there are performances that he heard at the age of sixteen that still shape his expectations), as everyone has something to contribute.   This was definitely the case with Mr. Nikkanen, who took the time to explain the difference between a sarabande and a chaccone to the audience and followed that explanation by playing all of the movements of the D Minor partita with an incredibly secure technique, bringing us to an incredibly well-conceived interpretation of the monumental chaccone.

After the intermission, Mr. Nikkanen delved deeply into the C Major sonata so convincingly, his reading including one of the most well-paced, exciting and convincing readings of a fugue that I have ever heard, that movement being followed with a most intimate yet visceral Andante.

While a student at the Shepherd School of Music, I left many performances being "convinced":   hearing interpretations that were so well-conceived that there could be no other way of sharing that music, yet sure that no one else could share as each of those young artists did.   This evening left me the same way:   while I have been a devotee of many other violinist's performances of these works, there is something very special about Mr. Nikkanen's approach to unaccompanied Bach performance that left me again grateful to be a musician and a thinker.

One of the wonderful things about The Spire Series is that they host post-concert receptions during which audience members can meet the artists who performed, and I am incredibly grateful to Mr. Nikkanen for taking the time to speak with my student about memorization and the "rite-of-passage" that is delving into the Sonatas and Partitas.   Furthermore, many thanks to Jason Kissel and everyone involved with The Spire Series for bringing this phenomenal musician to Baltimore.

March 6, 2015

"The deepest sincerity leads to happiness" - Holly Mulcahy on Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto

“The deepest sincerity leads to happiness.”  – Tim Stephens

Holly Mulcahy, Violin
Photo:   Bo Huang

Violinist Holly Mulcahy is a person who approaches every facet of her life with intention and sincerity.    Now in her second season as concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony, Ms. Mulcahy is acting in truly interesting ways to engage both her musical colleagues and her musical community.    “I’m grateful to be in a position where I can connect people, and when I took this position I did it with the intention of being a true and human presence in my community,” she said in a telephone conversation.   

“Since being in Chattanooga, I have done things like inviting both orchestra members and audience members to talk after concerts.    People have responded in such a beautiful way:   orchestra members come and talk about how they performed during the concert, and audience members have come and talked about what they liked about those performances.   These group discussions help us all see that there is an intertwined network of people who love the product from all angles, and they also lend to a feeling of community ownership of an entity.”

Thoughtfully, Holly shared her reasons for acting in ways that seem unprecedented in the world of classical music.   “Our time as performers in classical music is limited unless we go and fight for it – but we have to remember that the audience has to be loved as much as we love the music.  We need an active and passionate audience, and we have to remember that we have to cultivate them as much as we cultivate our skills.”    This philosophy is reflected in the way that Ms. Mulcahy relates to her colleagues as well:   “There are people playing the Chattanooga Symphony who made Carnegie Hall debuts and some who’ve retired here from bigger jobs.    One of the violinists is a former student of David Oistrakh – everyone adds to this orchestra, and the quality is just outstanding!”

Ms. Mulcahy’s dynamism and desire to connect is also reflected in NeoClassical, a blog in which she shares thoughts about her new community and its openness to new works and people, the classical music industry, and her own sense of adventure – that leading to her inspiring a Chattanooga bartender to create a cocktail named "The Awakening" in honor of Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto, which Holly will perform with the Chattanooga Symphony on March 12, 2015.     

“Several months ago, during a post-concert cocktail gathering with members of my orchestra, audience, board, and staff, I began talking with one of the bartenders and wondered aloud if he thought he could capture the essence of a violin concerto in a cocktail,” she said. “My goal was to offer the cocktail as a device to explain, entice, and invite people to listen to a newer violin work with an open mind and heart.”

This adventuresome spirit is the perfect one with which performers and audiences can experience Jennifer Higdon’s captivating concerto, which was written for and premiered by violinist Hilary Hahn.    Written in three movements (“1726”, “Chaconni”, and” Fly Forward”), this Pulitzer Prize winning concerto is also the ideal vehicle with which Ms. Mulcahy continues to integrate her desire to help a community continue embracing itself.

“This concerto was chosen for many reasons, one of which being that Jennifer’s family is from this area, and orchestras have a sense of pride and ownership regarding local members and composers.    The piece is amazing – it’s so reflective of her personality, you know that this is HER concerto.”

Holly is also keenly aware of the challenges inherent with performing modern music.   “The human race doesn’t always want it safe.    With new concerti, a quality work like this pushes an edge – you don’t know how it’s going to end, but you know that you’re going to have a pretty good ride.   The wonder of new works is the music can definitely result in everyone involved experiencing emotions that we like, yet in different ways than when we hear standard works.”  

“One of the many things I really like about Jennifer is that her music comes from a very sincere place, and does all of what I mentioned.  She also helps musicians and orchestras – a very vocal advocate for the arts.    That makes her approachable, and in the big picture she helps keep the industry alive.”

Indeed, Ms. Higdon has become an incredibly well-recognized force in the music industry.
Her blue cathedral, a two-movement sonic adventure for orchestra, has become one of America’s most performed contemporary orchestral works, with more than 500 performances worldwide since its premiere in 2000.   The Violin Concerto, however, since being premiered by Hilary Hahn, is currently only in the repertoire of four contemporary violinists, those being Ms. Hahn, recent
Montreal International Competition winner Benjamin Beilman, Naha Greenholtz
(concertmaster of the Quad-Cities Symphony) - and Holly Mulcahy.

While having spent several months learning the concerto (“My neighbors have listened to every facet of this concerto.  They have been lovely to accept the major 7ths being pounded out on a regular basis!”), Holly’s admiration for the work had deepened.   “With any composer who writes sincerely, performances and audience reactions are going to be deeply personal - you can tell when a composer is writing in a personal level.   It’s a unique sound, and there is such a great chance that the sincerity of her music is going to touch people.”

Ms. Mulcahy has received many accolades from people in the industry for her approach to embracing a community, and that is reflected in her views of the Chattanooga.   “This place is an oasis of sorts – a mini-Chicago!   There’s a huge cultural area with galleries, sculptures, and such and incredible theatre!   There’s a group of audiences for everything and a healthy appreciation for everything.”

“It’s a very pride-filled city.  Chattanooga is filled with proud people, but there’s an intelligence behind it that which creates something larger.   You can live a lot of places in the world, but when you step off a plane or drive into Chattanooga you feel that the people who have created this place love life.   You can’t help but feel alive - when you’re surrounded by life, you live better and you’re a better person.”

Violinist Holly Mulcahy performs Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto with the Chattanooga Symphony on Thursday, March 12, 2015.

For more information on Ms. Mulcahy, please visit www. hollymulcahy.com.   
For more on Ms. Higdon, please visit www.jenniferhigdon.com.    

March 5, 2015

"Philadelphia Freedom..."

One of the greatest parts of living in Baltimore is - believe it or not - working in other cities!    NO, I do not say that with any lack of love for my friends and colleagues here, but I have been quite fortunate since being here in that I have had the opportunity to play in and meet people playing in ensembles based both in Washington DC and Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is a very special place:   for me, this sense of wonder first came in 2012 when, upon stepping off of an Amtrak train, I felt a tremendous feeling of psychic freedom.    That trip was one during which I was playing with the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, a trailblazing group started by Jeri Lynne Johnson.    Since its founding in 2008, the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra has firmly established itself in Philadelphia and the region as a true artistic force in addition to having been recognized nationally as an ensemble that both reflects the true diversity of its community while also serving its community in truly innovative and meaningful ways.

It was through performing with the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra that I met Vena Johnson and Jennifer Boorum, and as I type this I remember December 2013 when, after having gone to Philadelphia for a rehearsal, the opportunity to speak quite deeply about social justice issues with Jennifer that I found out about Prometheus Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble in residence at the historic and stunning Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia.   

Needless to say, it was so pleasing to have an opportunity to write about Prometheus last year, and to gain knowledge of their mission to change the way audiences experience orchestra concerts, the relationship of the orchestra to the community, and the way musicians perceive concert programming and artistic responsibility.   How interesting, therefore, that the year 2014 also included Black Pearl's performance of Beethoven #9 at the Dell Music Center in a concert that furthered its mission of embracing community through featuring a host of amateur musicians playing alongside members of the orchestra.

In recent days, much good news has come out of Philadelphia about both ensembles, and I invite you to read both about Prometheus Chamber Orchestra's recent receipt of a grant from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and how, with Jeri Lynne Johnson and the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, destinies seem to be beautiful created.  

More soon, 

February 27, 2015


"A leader knows when to take charge, and when to yield...."

Post-Sibelius performance with Dorian Neuendorf

After almost 48 hours of delays, I am now back in Baltimore.   Having lived in Baltimore full-time since 2010, I seem to have forgotten that there are places and airports that do not have de-icing equipment (that would be Charleston, South Carolina), yet I sit grateful for the two day delay as I was able to spend time with my three-year-old niece.

Every performance is a rite of passage, and Monday's was no exception as it was my first performance of the Sibelius concerto as a professional.    This tremendous opportunity came to me last summer through being at the Vermont Music and Arts Center, where I met and read chamber music with a wonderful human being and his wife.

David Appleby is a man dedicated not only to his craft (he is a more than worthy pianist), but also to fully engaging with and working within his community.    Mr. Appleby is not only a member of the Board of Directors of the Columbia Community Orchestra, but also incredibly active as a member of the Salvation Army and has helped many men enter and continue recovery.    It was after a week of speaking with him and later reading Darius Milhaud's Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano
(Mr. Appleby's wife Eileen was the clarinetist) last summer that he proposed my traveling to South Carolina for this performance.   I had heard of the orchestra, and was thrilled to have been invited as the Columbia Community Orchestra was founded by my first private teacher and her husband - and even happier that the opportunity "came to me" as it had been in my thoughts to contact Ms. Ezell and ask about performing with the group at some time.  

And how do I continue this essay?

It need not be said that a tremendous difference exists between playing a concerto with piano and actually standing as the soloist, feeling undescribeable excitement while being surrounded by a tutti passage experienced primarily as a listener.     Furthermore, it need not be said that the work involved in preparing a concerto for performance can be both intense and fulfilling.  For this one, I took the opportunity to have what was a needed and beautiful lesson/coaching with Nurit Pacht, a violinist who I had the pleasure of meeting first in 1995 and again in 2014 (and about whom I shall write more in the coming weeks).

But how do I continue this essay?  

As stated before, every performance is a rite of passage, and this one for me was one in which I found the balance of being gracious while truly collaborating.    This experience was truly an educational one, an experience through which I was challenged to fully embrace a score and share that knowledge with a group of musicians who were incredibly eager and willing to bring the best of themselves to a situation.

And again, HOW do I continue?    How do I share my thoughts and observations?    Perhaps the thoughts and observations are so deeply personal that I cannot fully share them.    Nevertheless, I am incredibly grateful to everyone who made this possible, and especially to Dorian Neuendorf, a wonderful student conductor with whom I laughed, stressed, and consulted, as the decision to program the Sibelius was hers, and it was through working alongside her that I was able to bring deeper parts of myself - some of the best parts of myself - into the world.

More very soon,