Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Welcoming Neighbor

Before heading back to my apartment on Sunday after returning from Boston, I trekked up ten blocks to a close friend's house for a quick dinner so I could catch her and her adorable one-and-a-half year-old daughter before it was the little girl's bedtime. Leaving her apartment and beginning the walk back to my place with my suitcase, I noticed that it had started to rain again. Not quite a downpour, yet certainly more than drizzle. A healthy spring shower.

I debated catching a cab for the ten block journey, but decided against it. It's not too long of a walk, and I thought that I could make it without getting too drenched. I was mistaken. About half-way home, the shower picked up and became a heavier rainfall, big drops soaking my suitcase and blurring the lenses of my glasses. My leisurely walk turned into a wet slog, and I began to grumble. Too close for a taxi, I began to resent the wet chill that was seeping into my bones, and the seemingly endless number of grey days of the past few weeks. Not looking forward to coming home to an empty apartment, I groaned inwardly and quickened my pace.

Once in my building's lobby, I stood, dripping water onto the terrazzo floor, waiting for the elevator. As soon as the door started to open, I nearly bowled over the kind, older gentleman who is my neighbor that lives across the hall from me. I looked at him apologetically, and said, "I'm so sorry, Mr. K!"

"That's ok, young sir!" he said.

"Have a good evening, Mr. K," I said.

He looked at me and replied, "You, as well. Keep making beautiful music. I wish you well!"

I smiled as the elevator door closed, and the elevator lifted me home.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Twittering Bach

In an effort to find yet another way to procrastinate and putter away all my time, I have joined Twitter. While I am still trying to figure it out, I am beginning to find a use for it, and it is starting to serve as a place for me to start fleshing out ideas for this blog. I am hoping that it will help me post on here a bit more regularly. You can follow my tweets here.

While preparing for this St. John Passion that performs here in Boston tonight, I experienced a lot of the usual stress and frustration that learning Bach entails. I always come to a fresh Bach score cockily expecting it to be easy to learn, and I am always surprised and confounded by how tricky his music is with its unexpected and oddly kinky harmonic twists and turns. His music, drenched in faith and humility, requires those same attributes from those of us who perform it. That is probably why I find Bach more rewarding to perform than any other composer. In a way, it is the ultimate heilige Kunst, musically speaking.

This being my very first performance as the Evangelist and having lost some preparation time because of the unexpected concerts I had a couple of weeks ago, I felt a greater amount of anxiety wood-shedding it at the piano than I previously have experienced. In an effort to distract myself from the stress, I found myself turning Facebook to procrastinate – often putting whiny statements about the Bach up as my status. Before I knew it, people were posting comments on my status updates offering support, humor, wit, and perspective. Quite unexpectedly, a website that I generally view as time-sucking exercise had suddenly turned into a community that I could turn to for artistic support.

Part of the my nervousness about this St. John, aside from it being my first one and having to learn it under a bit of a time crunch, was because I was preparing it on my own, trying to be both continuo and Evangelist all at once. Arriving in Boston and meeting with the continuo players and the conductor brought huge relief, as it felt so much easier to finally be playing with others, especially with colleagues as good as these. As it turns out, my continuo colleagues are St. John novices, as well, so it has been a real treat to discover the piece for the first time together and figure out the intricacies of how we are going to tell the story. What has been especially wonderful about these rehearsals is how deeply each and every person involved is invested in the piece. The choir has been preparing for this for months, and the orchestra is really committed to every detail of telling the story and the music, as well. It's been a really special few days, and I'm really looking forward to our performance tonight.

All the best to my colleagues here in Boston for a great performance, and many thanks for an incredible couple of days of music-making and story-telling.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Simply staring at the pile of mail that needs to be sifted through on top of my piano, the stack of 1099 forms that remind me daily that tax season is nigh, the layer of dust that is covering my shelves in the bedroom that begs to be swiffered away, the cart full of clothes that need to be taken to the Salvation Army, and the multitude of other mundane chores that awaited my return home inspires an incredible feeling of fatigue. Feeling much too grand to deal with these things the week after my whirlwind tour of the United States a couple of weeks ago, I have let them stare back at me and nag at my consciousness. Of course, avoiding them has contributed to my sense of imbalance as of late, and I find that aside from practicing a lot simply out of necessity, I've not been able to get a lot of my to-do list accomplished. It's put me in a bit of a little funk the past few days.

The last tour of hopping from concert to concert was a really exciting moment in my career. In a way, after it was over, I really felt like I had taken a huge step towards a new level both artistically and professionally. For the first few days after Carnegie, I felt proud and happy of all that I had accomplished and really wanted to rest, relax, and bask in that feeling of success. But relaxation has given way to restlessness, and the simple things that all people need to take care of are not-so-subtly pulling me back into my routine again. The world keeps going moving on, and I have to keep up with it and find my back into the flow of it all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Unexpected Steps Forward

Spring seems to have made its first appearance here in the past couple of days, and the warmer weather has encouraged me to emerge from my hibernating state after my multi-stop jaunt across the country a couple of weeks ago.

My tour of the country culminated with a concert in Carnegie Hall with the Chicago Symphony of the program that we performed in Chicago the weekend before. After the concert ended, I immediately went into vacation-mode for approximately 24 hours. At the end of the next day, I realized abruptly that I actually was not able to remain on vacation mode and that I needed to park myself at my piano and pound notes into my throat for the next two concerts I have coming up.

The catch has been that I picked up a little sinus infection after the Friday concert in Chicago, and while that hasn't affected my singing at all, it did stop up my left ear, and my hearing has been distorted since then. Under normal circumstances, I probably would make use of the time off to simply rest and recover, but I've had to chain myself to the practice room these past ten days, since I want to have these next two programs learned in time.

The oddest thing has been that even though I would think that my lessons would be fruitless and frustrating because of my being a bit sick, my blocked hearing has forced me to get out of my own way in my sessions with my teacher. I marvel at how the effort I normally put into mastering my technique can get in the way of achieving my goal. Having to let go because I can't trust my own ears right now, in these last few lessons, I've actually made some of the greatest strides forward that I've made in a while. Something that seemed initially to be an obstacle has instead become a stepping stone.

Thursday, March 05, 2009


This past weekend, I sang at a fundraising gala for the Napa Valley Youth Symphony. As I walked out on stage to sing the final number of the evening, I looked back at the children and teenagers of the youth orchestra that crowded the stage, their instruments poised to play the first notes of Make Our Garden Grow from Leonard Bernstein's Candide. One young man, who could not have been older than 8, was too little to sit, and therefore was standing next to his stand-partner. His bow, marked with a little piece of yellow tape to show its center much like my first violin bow had been, was set and ready to play the first chord. Looking back at those kids, I was reminded of my own youth orchestra days - days that I have been thinking about a lot this week since I left Napa.

My very first summer at Interlochen, just after finishing the 8th grade, our orchestra played, among other things, excerpts from Stravinsky's Firebird. It was my first taste of Stravinsky's music, and I found myself transfixed. When I returned home to Ann Arbor after camp was over, I rummaged through my father's collection of recordings to see if he owned a recording of the complete piece. What I found was a recording with a flashy, red, yellow, and blue cover of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Pierre Boulez conducting. A few years later, my youth orchestra in Detroit was tackling Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, and as I struggled to understand the piece, I looked for a recording to put my confusing second violin part into some sort of context as I studied it. I wrestled so diligently with that piece that I moved up 10 chairs from the back of the second violin section all the way up to the front when it came time for challenges that semester. The recording I turned to was also conducted by Maestro Boulez and the CSO. Just a couple of years ago, long after I had given up the violin and was singing professionally, I turned yet again to an album recorded buy the same forces as I was trying to make sense of Bartók's Cantata Profana when I performed it a couple of years ago with the St. Louis Symphony. Throughout every phase of my musical life, I have always looked to the recordings of Maestro Boulez and the CSO when it came to understanding music composed last century.

Today, sitting in my chair on stage at Symphony Center here in Chicago during our afternoon rehearsal, I looked up from my Pulcinella score at Maestro Boulez beating time with his hands and marveled that I was here actually making music with these people who, whether they know it or not, have taught me so much about music. For those parts of the rehearsal that I wasn't singing, I found it very hard not to stare star-struck and gape in awe that I am actually here this week.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


In one of the elementary school music rooms that Lydia and I performed outreach programs in last week, there was a poster on the wall that colorfully displayed the following:

"It's ok to make a mistake when you've tried -.
It's a mistake not to try."

Coincidentally or not, just a day earlier, I read the following:

"If God is all powerful, and I believe that God is, then there is no such thing as an irreparable mistake."
-Julia Cameron, Finding Water

I'm still trying to let that all sink in.