Cutting Through the Noise

by Joshua Roman

We’re so fast.

So. Fast.

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It’s breathtaking, really, if you think back even ten years, to the advent of the iPhone. The internet was something to be checked on a few times a day, unless you happened to be sitting in front of a computer. Very few people were constantly plugged in. Now, it’s the complete opposite.

This is not a new trope; only an acceleration of a theme common throughout human development especially after the industrial age. As we create more and more ways to bring convenience into our everyday life, time for reflection and articulation becomes harder to find. In a world of increasingly instantaneous sharing, the pressure to be immediate exerts itself in ways we do not yet fully understand, and our sense of balance can get lost.

I’m not anti-technology; I’m not even against a fast-paced life. I love living in New York City! But I cherish the moments I get in nature, in silence, in solitude. With the constantly increasing noise surrounding us as we try to stay up-to-date, I think it is important that we embrace the opportunities we have to work on a longer game with the same energy we embrace the new, the latest, the most up-to-date.

I’ve been working on drafts of a post to respond to emotions that are running high all around for the last couple of weeks, including mine. Something designed not to simply soothe, but hopefully to have a positive impact, however small it may be. One thing that strikes me as an avid follower of the news is that in fact, my emotions have been running high for over a year, not just recently. And I’ve felt a sense of urgency that doesn’t have a clear set of actions to solve whatever issues are bubbling underneath the surface.

I’m talking about life right now, but this is also relevant for artand for music. It’s so temptingand again, sometimes necessary and goodto be quick with what we do. Find the easiest fingering for a passage. The phrasing that is good enough. The interpretation that we might already have a knack for. That has served me well; my last post was about my experience and thoughts around improv. It doesn’t get much more immediate than that!* To contrast, though, there are times when something substantive demands a more thought out approach.

(*I will add that the most complete improv experiences I’ve had have been led or inspired by artists with the experience to approach even the moment-to-moment interaction with deep thoughtfulness)

I’ve been pondering and probing the various ways I can serve through my art—as a cellist, a composer, a curator, a writerand there are many. I’m working on concrete plans (again, the scale may not always be large, but the statement and course correction are important) that I will share soon. Some of them are simple codifications of practices and habits that are already manifest in some (disorganized) form, and some may end up being new directions as I seek input to help understand the actual results that affect other people.

Back to #Bach. This time with @ted.

A photo posted by Joshua Roman (@joshuaromancello) on

I felt an incredible amount of tension and animosity in the air in the days after the election and so I responded with Bach. This was not my original idea, but I could not find a quick way to articulate something with words that I believed would be true and also not make its way into one of the echo chambers that surround many of us, reinforcing only what we already think. In Bach I found something universal, something human, something that transcends the temporal. Is it enough? For someone with strong opinions like me, no. So there will be more.

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At the moment, though, I’m challenging myself to be true, rather than fast. To be thoughtful, rather than convenient. In both my art and in my life, as I work on depth rather than speed, slowing down is difficult and yet feels so right. There’s plenty of quick thinking and fast responding (just ask my girlfriend about my obsession with facts and “OK Google” on my phone), and finding the right balance is a constant adjustment.

My challenge to you: think before you _______. (*)

*Speak
*Write (music, that Facebook post, a text)
*Get out of bed
*Put bow to string, fingers to keys, lips to mouthpiece, etc…

Experiment with this balance between the hectic and immediate vs. the slow and thoughtful. It’s a pendulum which works best when swinging in tandem with your own internal rhythm, so take the time to notice what happens when you change it up. Look for other perspectives, explore; how does this practice affect your conversations? How does it affect your practice routine?

Art exists for many purposes, and one of the great benefits of practicing art is learning how to observe and tweak your own internal processes.

As I alluded before, this post comes in the middle of a time of reflection and preparation. Sometimes a period like this does not result in a huge outward change, but an inner realignment of the compass. I look forward to sharing the results of this process with you, and encourage you to take the time to slow down and give yourself a chance to grow in all that you do, so that your actions, words, and sounds may have the full weight of purpose behind them. In doing so, perhaps you’ll manage to cut through some of the self-perpetuating noise out there and find a measure of confidence and peace on our shared journey as musicians, as artists, as humans.

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Four Tips for Classical Musicians Beginning Improv (I wrote this on the fly)

by Joshua Roman
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If you’re a classically trained musician, chances are you can play a number of complex pieces on demand, by memory, you can look at a piece of music you’ve never seen before and decipher the symbols on the page in real time (sight reading), or at least you can rather quickly learn a piece and bring it to performance level. Are you, however, comfortable playing along with music you like on the non-classical station? Can you sit in with your friends and make up a tune, a countermelody, or catch the bass line the first time around?

With the “classical” sensibility that has been cultivated over the last century, the latter set of skills may sound superfluous. Crack open that history book, though, and you’ll see that improv has been integral to musicianship for centuries. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt (name pretty much any musician from before the 20th century) – they all knew how to improvise. Their level of improv was fairly high, in some cases arguably the main reason for their original fame. While that’s an intimidating standard, I’ve come to realize that the benefits of even a basic level of improv comfort are tremendous.

The most difficult part of improv for someone who is used to preparing for hours, days, weeks before letting anyone hear a piece of music, is letting go of that control. The fear of playing something wrong is important to overcome, but I’ve discovered a few helpful mantras/tools:


1. Don’t compare your improv to the music you usually play.
If you spend most of your time playing the music of the greats, you might have totally unrealistic expectations. Those sounds were organized by veritable masters, and have proven the test of time. That’s not necessary for improv purposes! Simple, easy, accessible, creative, and above all, YOU, is what’s important here.

2. Start small.
I mean this in every way possible. Start in a room where no one can hear you, if you need to! Sometimes it’s useful to just play one note over and over again (an ostinato) until you get tired of it and naturally move on. Or, put on a song you listen to all the time, figure out the melody or the bass line, and then gradually begin to find other notes in between. Sometimes I even like to hold one note through a chord pattern, and feel the tension modulate as the chords underneath shift.

3. Allow yourself repetition.
When I was ten or eleven, my dad started having me play with his band on Sunday nights at church. I’ll never forget his reply when I asked about the sheet music – he said “you’ll figure it out. If you don’t like the note you’re playing, play a different one.” Kind of to the contrary, he also said “if you play a ‘wrong’ note, play it until you make it the ‘right’ note.” Basically, if you do something that doesn’t quite fit, you can incorporate the “mistake” into your next phrase, thereby “fixing” the mistake retroactively by use of repetition. So much of music is about how we play with expectations – so a keen awareness of patterns can take us into super cool and new places, and help us let go of the fear of “messing up” in improv.

4. Do your thing.
The most beautiful thing about improv is that it comes from you. It can begin to reflect your own unique voice – your sense of style and the elements of music that are most important to you. Find yourself listening to Lady Gaga when you’re not practicing excerpts? Great place to start! Simple chord patterns, a consistent beat, tunes you can pick up easily. Love the structure of techno with its beat drops and long arcs? That’s a fun way to learn to read what’s coming next. Want to get inside the mind of Dvorak and his Cello Concerto? Take the main theme and riff on it – how would you develop the material differently? One of my favorite things to do in school was to turn out the lights in a practice room and just start “following the sound.” Sometimes melodic, sometimes strange and wonderful fragments, sometimes just a rhythm would emerge. Letting go of expectations is key.

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Photo Credit: Bret Hartman

The benefits of learning to improv become apparent very quickly. First off, it opens up so many collaborative possibilities! It also gives you a very powerful entry point into any composer’s music. When you start to see all of the choices the composer did not make, the choices they did make paint a stronger picture. One of the more amusing results of becoming comfortable with improv is less fear of memory slips. I say “amusing” as I think of the times I’ve heard myself and others wander off script, and the hilarious (and therefore less awkward) paths back to the written score. Perhaps most importantly, as this skill develops, it gives you insight into your own artistic voice. When all the musical choices are yours, your priorities emerge much more clearly. This process of self-discovery is absolutely essential in order to cultivate an understanding of what you offer to your listeners and colleagues.

In my own musical life, improv has gone far beyond those beginning days of an added cello line to the band. I improvise all of my cadenzas when I perform Haydn Concertos, I’ve improvised entire pieces on stages including the TED stage, and collaborations with artists such as Anna Deavere Smith, DJ Spooky, Anne Patterson, We Are Golden (“Just Every Fisher’s Folly” and “Allen in February and March”), Mason Bates, have all come about because of comfort making notes up on the spot. And I’m not even very good at it, just willing!

Let’s hear what you’ve got. Share your stories, through improv video or otherwise.

Women in (New) Music: Women, Creativity, and the Classroom

by Kaley Lane Eaton

Well, here we are. It is 2016, and 14 of the top US orchestras have programmed zero works by female composers in the 2016-2017 season. The U.S. presidential election has exposed various unsettling realities that women experience on a daily basis, much of which is particularly relatable for women in leadership positions in male-dominated fields.

As a female composer working towards my DMA in composition, after spending years entrenched in feminist liberal arts colleges and female-dominated opera programs, it is easy to get discouraged about the state of women; indeed, recent studies have shown that gender imbalance in favor of men can actually contribute to health problems for women in those fields. But the imbalance in our field need not be permanent.

In 2013, as part of my Master’s thesis, I conducted a study titled “Women, Creativity, and the Classroom” with the goal of highlighting how women versus men are conditioned to experience their creativity in the music classroom. As my study found (and additional research supports), gender imbalance in creative leadership roles is rooted in K-12 classrooms across America.

The lack of women in our music education paradigm is rooted in the lack of presence of women in the actual world of music. The popular new music blog NewMusicBox conducted an informal study of progressive chamber ensembles that focus on performing the work of recent and living composers, calculating the percentages of their season repertoire composed by women:

Both interpretations of these pie charts are troubling: that women have written only an average of 16% of all existing new music, or that these ensembles are deliberately selecting such a small percentage of actual existing repertoire.

These numbers reflect the kind of education that girls and women receive in school and higher education: A History of Western Music by Grout and Palisca, the standard music history text used in most institutions, includes only eight mentions of women as composers in its 1136 pages. Consistently, only 15.8% of doctorates awarded in music composition and theory go to women.

Despite the wealth of research that points to a universal (although with variation) aptitude for creativity among children, there is a gap in research that examines how each gender navigates creativity in differing social circumstances. Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking work illuminates the fact that pubescent girls deal with dissociation, a psychological phenomenon where one questions the validity of experience and hesitates to express experiences authentically.

Gilligan notes, “If [girls] speak freely and reveal what they see and hear and know through experience, they are in danger of losing their relationships.” If we assume this truth, then young girls feel their relationships are at risk when they express their authentic selves, which distances them from the desire to pursue creative and expressive work. This was the concept I attempted to unearth in my research, and my findings prove dissociation is well at work within the minds of our young girls.


Methods Phase I: Surveys

I undertook a variety of methods to collect data from two 6th grade drumming classes and two 9th and 10th grade (combined) choir classes: during the initial phase, I administered a detailed survey in which I asked students to rank their feelings towards, enjoyment of, and beliefs about their creative activity. Students had the opportunity to justify their numerical rankings with written responses, which most chose to do – these responses heavily impacted my conclusions. On the same survey, I also asked these students to list their musical role models.

Below is a selection of questions and their results, visualized into a graph. A “5” on the answering scale indicates strong agreement, and a “1” indicates strong disagreement.

To read the full study, which featured a series of six questions, please click here.

Survey Question: I feel comfortable taking risks in improvisation and composition activities.

6th Grade Responses
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9th/10tGrade Responses
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Findings:

  • All girls who answered with 2 or 3 indicated a fear of making a mistake, being laughed at, or cited their lack of experience with music. Their responses showed high social awareness: “my peers will think,” “they will laugh,” etc.
  • High school girls indicated that mistakes were a major component of the activity: those that answered 4 and 5 had justifications like “I might mess up but I know it’s ok,” and those that answered low cited reasons such as “I make too many mistakes.” As our improvisation activity had no possible “mistakes,” the girls were allowing a fabricated idea of the “mistake” to inform their comfort level.
  • Many girls of all scoring levels indicated they were low in self-esteem and therefore did not feel comfortable taking risks.
  • By contrast, 6th grade boys answered with only 4s and 5s – showing strong confidence in risk-taking. These boys explained that improvising and risk-taking were enjoyable regardless of circumstance, and not a single boy used any vocabulary relating to the opinion of their peers.
  • High school boys indicated confidence was related to skill – “It’s fun because I am good at it.”
  • Not a single survey from a high school boy used the word “mistake” or any of its synonyms. One survey did say rather poignantly, “No risk and no consequence to improvisation.”

Questions in the survey phrased using “I believe” were designed to assess students’ levels of self-esteem and self-confidence in their creative ability. Self-esteem and self-confidence are not accurate predictors of actual talent and creativity in either men or women from childhood to adulthood, with men typically showing inflated confidence and women showing low self-esteem. My findings support that; these questions showed great gender and age disparity.

Survey Question: I believe I have leadership skills in music.

6th Grade Responses
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9th/10th Grade Responses
9th-grade-second-questionFindings:

  • This question showed not only the greatest gender disparity in both ages, but also the greatest change from 6th grade to high school. Genders answered in nearly opposite percentages in all grades.
  • Comments that students left on surveys display the same trends that the other questions indicate – where boys viewed leadership as an expression of individual power, girls viewed leadership as a construction primarily in place to help others. Girls were careful not to justify their high scores with self-praise but rather with acknowledgement of group needs.
  • Girls that cited strong or neutral attitudes towards leadership skills in both 6th grade and high school were unanimous in their view of leadership as a role that is in place to help others, rationalizing their scores with statements such as “I work well with groups,” “Students tend to ask me for help,” “I want to encourage others,” and  “I’m not the best but I want to help others.” Responses such as these reflect the tendency for girls of all ages to divert positive attention away from themselves and attribute it to outside forces.
  • Boys showed waning confidence with age in their responses to this question as well, but also illuminated their conception of leadership as fundamentally different from the girls’ conception: leadership was a mark of success, of individual power and talent – not a role primarily concerned with helping others.
  • Boys in all grades cited achievement, confidence and skill (or lack thereof) as a means of justifying their leadership scores. Those that answered low said they were “not a leader”, “not comfortable”,  “just started with music” or “didn’t play an instrument” and those that answered highly said “I play in a band”, “I’m great at music”, “I love music,” “music is my strength,” and “I’ve led musical groups before.”
  • This is important to contrast with the high school girls’ answers – boys felt that their passion and their strength was enough to qualify them as a leader, whereas girls unanimously cited nomination from their peers as the primary reason for pursuing leadership.

Overall, these responses illuminate the central problems that divide our genders from childhood throughout adulthood: society places more pressure on women to be a certain “way,” whatever that “way” may be. In 6th grade, girls begin to display awareness of society’s pressures: that in order to succeed, they must fit someone else’s definition of who they are. Because creativity and identity are intricately intertwined, this inhibits the development of their creative life. Boys, however, respond to different pressures and display less fear of failure. The pressures of masculinity that so shape their adolescent life predispose them to risk-taking in order to be accepted by male peers. Creativity is simply another form of risk-taking, and the likelihood that boys will face societal rejection upon taking creative risks is much smaller.  


Methods Phase II: Expressing their experiences

During the second phase, I designed an improvisation activity for 6th grade students and asked them to write, draw, or somehow represent on paper their experience during the improvisation activity. Following the written activity, each student had the opportunity to share his or her experience with the class. I created two poems, one using the girls’ responses and one using the boys’, of which each line is a student-written response.

Girls
My mind was all over the place.
They might think I’m crazy.
I felt like my mind was an unknown puzzle trying to find the right pieces, the pieces were my peers, community.
What would work with the other person?
I was thinking about sounds that would sound really good or bad.
What I did sounded bad.
I felt like we were a community.
I was nervous that if I messed up maybe some people would laugh at me.
We are a community.
With each beat came harmony.
The rhythm didn’t come as planned, so I thought of something else.
I had nothing to be afraid of.
I stare at the window as I drum my new idea and try to tune in.
I am listening with the beats on my hand, their beats on my ears, and the drum in my heart.

Boys
My mind was blank.
In my own world with my own beat yet fully aware of the beats around me.
At first I didn’t know what to do but then I got into rhythm, it was really easy for me. I think I am nervous because it’s out of my comfort zone and I don’t really do music.
When I put my hand on a drum I can feel it lingering through my fingers.
I felt very musical and a little offbeat.
When we started the first improv I didn’t have a clue what to do. When we did the second I had a better idea.
A certain rush comes through me that I can’t explain, it feels like I could do anything I put my mind to.


Who will I be?: Musical Role Models

When I researched this same group of students’ musical role models, the results were harrowing:

  • Of the 27 artists mentioned by both 6th grade girls and boys, zero were female.
  • 50% of the 6th grade girls and 13% of 6th grade boys indicated they had no musical role models. 26.6% of high school girls and 17.6% of high school boys had no musical role models.
  • Comparing this data to the survey data, in which 6th grade girls answered with lower scores for each question across the board, there seems to be a correlation at this age between available role models and creative confidence.
  • 30 high school girls mentioned 46 artists, 20 of which were female. High school girls represented the most diverse stylistic tastes of all samples, with role models ranging from classical, pop, and classic rock to musical theatre.
  • Interestingly, this sample was the only group to mention family members as role models, with 4 of the 30 girls citing relatives as major musical influences. Four high school girls also mentioned their classroom music teacher – who is a woman – as a musical role model.
  • In stark contrast, the 18 high school boys surveyed mentioned 40 artists, only one of which was female. Only one high school boy mentioned family as an influence and only one mentioned the classroom music teacher.

The numbers are clear: young women and men do not have enough female musical role models. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, of all the samples, only the high schools girls mentioned female artists as role models, and even then, at a lower rate than they mentioned male artists. In order for us to claim true equality in the way we educate our young musicians, both boys and girls should ideally be claiming comparable numbers of male and female role models.


What Can We Do?

The classical music world – especially the portion that contains new music, in which living composers are the vital presence – is a relatively small portion of society. There are few opportunities to have conversations about gender representation because the majority of white, male composers and conductors in leadership positions have rarely had to battle institutional barriers; thus the conversation of institutional barriers rarely makes the top of the agenda.

Further, in speaking with some of my composing colleagues and collecting survey data from adult, professional female composers and conductors, many women noted hostility between women in our field. Often, this is reported as conflict between women who celebrate their gender as an important factor of their art and women who refrain from explicitly speaking about it. Thus the gender conversation, in gender imbalanced situations, can range from inspiring, to awkward, to, unfortunately, silencing or even harassing, as reported in several surveys. The unpredictability of this kind of conversation based on past experiences, according to these same reports, often prevents women (and men) from bringing it up.

The best way we can improve the situation is to address the problem, and to think critically about the music that we consume, study, perform, and share. Music teachers must work tirelessly to develop their own curriculums that include equal representations of female and male composers and creative role models and refrain from using old textbooks that do not provide accurate representations of women and people of color. This is no easy task, as even the most dedicated of progressive teachers often fail to provide their students with fair numbers. It is, however, feasible. There is enough available published music for school music ensembles to be able to provide close to equal representation of female composers at school concerts.

Where possible, educators can incorporate composition into school curriculum to allow for student compositions to be presented in concert as well. Educators may also opt for an active role in the pursuit of equality by asking students to write letters to publishing companies and arts organizations that fail to provide decent representation of women.


Conclusions

Our music industry, in all its facets – from underground indie rock to classical music to corporate pop – reflects our societal attitude towards women: we are not creative agents, but targets of male visions. This mentality has permeated our school system, where the same dichotomy is enforced in the way that we allow our students to relate to one another socially and in the way that we, as teachers, encourage and reprimand them.

Behaviorally, we expect girls – from kindergarten to high school – to follow rules rather than question them. Every day, the patterns that our girls experience in school are reinforced by the patterns they see in women in the media. As girls age and become more aware of social roles and dynamics, they consequently begin to pigeonhole themselves as appeasers, as helpers, as bystanders. We heap the responsibility of perfect social order in the classroom on our girls rather than expecting equal contribution AND deviation from both genders. Girls of all ages should feel just as comfortable as boys to mess up, to break rules, to be punished – this is how we develop confidence, and this is how we break creative boundaries.

kaley-lane-eaton-with-studentsIn my data, it became clear that over time, girls associate creativity with deviation from the group, and boys associate creativity with individual success. What seems like a difference in vocabulary is representative of our society’s depressingly imbalanced attitude towards the role of women. What results from this imbalance is exactly what we have now: consistently misunderstood female public figures, and very few women in creative leadership roles. This, in turn, reinforces the vicious cycle: in this world, there are few creative female role models and, most importantly, new, relevant art is not being created to its full capacity.

Can our world progress in equality, in empathy, in opportunity for all, if this is the dominant paradigm? My answer is yes: it is in the hands of artists and educators, who are thankfully and wonderfully radical in what they do, to chip away at this paradigm.

Every initiative made by major arts organizations to combat social problems, be they issues of race, social class, gender, or other imbalances in the arts community, serves to help women and girls rise up. Every resilient and brave woman that applies for professorships, fellowships, and grants inspires a friend, student, or colleague. Every mother that shares what her day at work was like with her daughter creates an inspired young leader. Every woman that makes a record inspires a girl to write her first song. And every vote made towards candidates, initiatives, and policies that address equity helps to create a society where women and men both lead and take creative risks. For these reasons, I am optimistic.

Please click here for a full list of references.

Girl Power!

by Joshua Roman

Damn, those girls can sing!

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Photo credits: Rachel Clee

I recently had the honor of collaborating with an incredible group of young women. Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, asked me to join them for a concert of canons spanning a timeline from the 13th Century to this year, with a world premiere of “Our Voice”, which I wrote this year for the girls and my cello.

I had worked with the chorus and their music director Valérie Sainte-Agathe last year on Vireo, a filmed opera by Lisa, and had been impressed by their musicianship and enthusiastic approach to new music. Our musical interaction in that work was mostly tangential, but it was enough to get the wheels turning in my head about how the cello could fit in the group, or contrast in a powerful way. There was lots of room for experimentation, and not just in the song I wrote. A lot of the canons we performed could easily be complete on their own, without the cello butting in, so it was in some ways a leap of faith that I would be able to complement the girls without distracting from the point of each little piece. I have to say, it was really Lisa’s daring vision that convinced me to embark on this project, and in the end she was spot on.

Most of the program was filled with canons that stuck pretty close to the “rules” – so creativity was definitely necessary to keep things from becoming too formulaic. In “Duo Way Robin” (Anonymous, 13th Cent.), I experimented with starting the canon myself and then moving to drones and rhythmic percussion on the body of the cello. In our selections from Haydn’s “The Ten Commandments of the Arts and other secular canons”, I improvised connections between each short canon. After leading the girls into each canon by playing a predetermined cue, I would mix it up by doubling a voice, taking a voice myself, or sitting out for a while and adding appropriate harmony below. The Franck and the Brahms had violin or viola solos which were easy to transcribe and didn’t require additional arrangement.

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“Our Voice”, the song I wrote for the girls, went through several forms before taking its final shape. In the end, I wrote the lyrics myself, something I had never done before. I found it quite difficult, and tried to imagine what I would want if I were in their shoes. I realized that the temptation to write something cherubic was front and center, and thought they must certainly be excited for characters to contrast with that, something with a little more bite. I ended up writing something I hoped would be empowering and also a bit defiant. “Listen to our voice”, and “we can be anything we choose” countered the tongue-in-cheek use of angelic harmonies on the word “angels”. One line, which I never felt I got exactly right in wording, but really felt like the right tone; “sure we’re angelic, but we’re so much more than that” was a transitional phrase that I heard repeated and sung in the hallways backstage. I was surprised and delighted to find it was actually some
of the girls’ favorite line
, and to that end felt very gratified that perhaps some of my words might prove useful to the girls as they build their own identities.

That was both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward; going after the goal of writing more than just a nice-sounding piece. Empathy is an important skill in any music-writing, but setting myself up with something so specific was rather daunting. Especially given the task of writing lyrics for the first time, decided to only play slightly with vocal techniques and canon intricacy, leaving the structure through-composed and letting the voices flock or join together in other ways as obvious turning points in the piece. All I really wanted was to write something they would enjoy, and that would make them feel strong, capable, and proud of themselves. Once again, hearing other people take notes I had written – this time even words – and make real music out of them, moved me far beyond what I expected.

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Thank you, girls, for showing me I can do this, too!

Due Date: Awakening

by Joshua Roman

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#TFW you’re about to hear your first orchestral composition for the first time…

It’s alive! My first cello concerto, has come into the world – kicking and screaming – but alive. What a crazy experience. I’ve never done anything quite like this, and while it was a project that stretched me almost to the limit, it’s been worth it. I feel more in touch with my artistic sensibility than ever, and more motivated to continue the creative process than I have been in a long time.

I’ll save details of the piece for the day when I’m able to share a recording. In the meantime, there were plenty of lessons in the process.

Lesson 1: Everything Takes Longer Than You Think!
Lesson 2: Everything Takes Longer Than You Think, Even After Allowing For Lesson 1.

The other lessons were more fun, and didn’t require all-nighters. (which leads to apologies to my copyist, George Katehis, who should be sponsored by Red Bull.)

I learned that I am not so good at revision – I already kind of knew this, in relation to writing this blog (among other things). I think it might have something to do with my training as a performer, spending years developing the skill of memorizing quickly. Perhaps those neural pathways need to chill a bit, and not wear those grooves in so deeply on first hearing. Luckily, I’ve been getting better at it by necessity. The blog helps, but the concerto really was a breakthrough in that sense. The pressure of an impending performance where I’m presenting my own art led to much more scrutiny than I realized I was capable of.

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As usual, Mom and Dad got the first preview via Skype.

I also learned that it takes a bit longer than the warm-up time between dress rehearsal and the concert to switch from the composing mindset to the performing one. It didn’t help that the damn composer (me) didn’t give the cellist (me) the music until very late in the game. As I rehearsed, my focus was very much on the orchestra bringing my imaginary sounds to life. Listening to hear if what I had notated was being played, and if so, was it working the way I expected? In this state of mind it’s hard to do much more than play the notes. During my break, I had time with the cello alone, and quickly realized that I needed to breathe and bring myself back into that special focus that I need to perform. It worked, somewhat, but as with everything else that week it would have been easier had the details of orchestration and rehearsal been more prepared by yours truly when we showed up for the endgame. I’ve kept careful track of these lessons, and am now super excited to apply them next time around.

In fact, I have the opportunity to do much of that as I finish my revisions before the next performance with ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus in January. I’m making changes now so there’s time to sit with them and continue modifying until it seems right. And then, I’ll walk away from it and just enjoy the continuing process as the interpretation can evolve rather than the notes themselves.

There’s not much to do: a couple of sections need an extra measure or two to develop the way I meant. And balance! I was sure, as a cellist who has played many concertos, that I would get the balance right the first time around. Lo and behold, I was overambitious and could tell immediately that adjustments were needed. Some of it was a matter of adjusting dynamics in rehearsals, but we didn’t get quite all the way to balance perfection. No way am I going to practice some of the ridiculous passagework if it can’t even be heard! Those are relatively easy fixes though. The more I hear others play my music, the more I realize the importance of detailed markings. They can convey a shape and a character that bring them out even if a dynamic is soft, or simply serve to hold a players’ attention in a way that attracts the ear of a listener.

I’m very grateful to all who made this project possible. To have created something that speaks of personal emotions is a great feeling, and the fact that I’m able to share it on such a platform and with the support of others is incredibly inspiring and uplifting. This is only part two – eventually there will be music to play for you, and I look forward to that moment. In the meantime, go create something!!

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Backstage after the premiere. That was intense! It was great to have David Danzmayr conduct.

My current playlist:
Ingram Marshall: Gradual Requiem
David Byrne and St. Vincent: Love This Giant
Barber: Essay No.2 for Orchestra

Joshua Roman’s cello concerto “Awakening” was premiered on October 17, 2015 with Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor David Danzmayr, commissioned by Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra of Columbus, The Lied Center of Kansas, and The Corral Family. For more about “Awakening,” check out the Chicago Tribune preview and its first review in Chicago Classical Review.

Revisiting Bates

by Joshua Roman

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Mason Bates, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and Joshua Roman backstage at Benaroya Hall

That old familiar friend – a piece that already has a life inside of you and is ready to be teased back into the external world. For a cellist, these are usually pieces of very old music: Bach Cello Suites, Concertos by Dvorak or Haydn, Sonatas and Quartets from days of yore.

This time, I get to reignite the flame with a rather new concerto: that special work by my friend Mason Bates. I am so lucky to count wonderful composers among my friends, and to work with them regularly. Last year, Mason wrote his first Cello Concerto for me, and we gave the premiere with the Seattle Symphony. Even by the time of the world premiere, I had given the piece several test runs with pianist Carlos Avila, for small audiences with discerning ears. Now I’ve decided this is a must! I had a similar preparatory experience with “Dreamsongs”, the concerto Aaron Jay Kernis wrote for me the previous year, and on the day of a premiere it makes all the difference to have more comfort, confidence, and a deeper connection with the music.

So pulling the score back out, I had a decision to make. Listen to archival recordings from the performances with Seattle and Columbus? Or rely on memory of what worked and what didn’t? Usually, with a piece that’s already entered the standard repertory, I have a self-imposed rule that listening to other recordings is strictly verboten within a month of a performance. It may be 80% superstition, but I want to be conscious of what makes its way into my interpretation. However, is it any different when the only recordings in existence are my own? If I listen at all, I generally listen to archival recordings fairly soon after the performance to get a sense of whether my intentions come across or not, and try to take notes for later.

An experiment began to take shape: I started by looking at the score as if it was the first time, and began to practice before listening to any recordings. This way, at least I could leave room for any accidental discoveries, which are always fun! Of course, there were a few – opportunities for color changes or subtleties I missed the first time around. Or did I?

Going back, listening to the recordings, it was fun to see what recollections were spot on, and what memories had taken on the subjective hue of emotions surrounding certain moments or performances. Listening to oneself can be a painful process, but the illuminating effect it has is well worth it. There were plenty of sighs of relief on my part, as well as the usual grimacing. Definitely something that I prefer to do alone in the privacy of my own room!

The fact that I had some insight into my own previous interpretations (hued or not) helped me get past my concern about the unseen influence recordings can otherwise have. If anything, it has helped even more as I discover what gestures, colors, and emotions come across in the sound and what is only internal. From now through the time of the last performance of the season, I’ll be listening back to run-throughs, rehearsals, and performances, chipping away at the edges of this particular work of art.

You’ll see in the list below that I’ve chosen to listen to other works by Mason. While I do have certain hesitations regarding listening to a specific piece I’m playing, if I can find other pieces by the same composer, or works that I know have influenced, I find it a good way to absorb more of their style and voice. And of course, being in constant communication with Mason to get ever closer to the heart of his musical soul.

The best part of being with such a new “old friend”, is that I get to introduce so many people to these new sounds for the first time. Long live new music!

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Eric Jacobsen and Joshua Roman getting ready for Mason Bates at Greater Bridgeport Symphony.

Joshua performs the Bates Concerto throughout the 15-16 season, beginning Saturday, September 19 with the Greater Bridgeport Symphony under the baton of Eric Jacobsen – check Joshua’s calendar for a city near you!

LISTENING TO: Mason Bates
Stereo is King (whole album)
Violin Concerto with Anne Akiko Meyers, violin

John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit: Q&A with Melanie Voytovich

by Melanie Voytovich

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A very special performance of John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit is taking place on Saturday, September 19, 2pm at Seward Park Amphitheater. It is FREE and open to the public! Melanie Voytovich organized the performance and we wanted to turn the blog over to her for a little background on the piece and what to expect! 

 

What is Inuksuit?
163Inuksuit is a 79-minute masterpiece written for 9 to 99 percussionists composed by John Luther Adams. The title refers to a type of stone landmark used by native peoples of the Arctic region; listeners discover their individual listening points as they, too, move freely during the performance. This work is designed to heighten our awareness of the sights and sounds that surround us every day, and deeply influenced by the composer’s belief that “music can contribute to the awakening of our ecological understanding. By deepening our awareness of our connections to the earth, music can provide a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and culture.” Adams has notated in Inuksuit that the piece should only be performed outdoors. The piece uses a mix of standard and less common instruments, including glockenspiel, toms, cymbals, conch shells, whirly tubes, vuvuzelas, and sirens.

 

What can people expect?
Inuksuit_Shawn_Brackbill_BPeople can expect a really unique listening experience. Often when we attend concerts we’re asked to sit in a single location and tune out any extraneous sounds to enjoy the performance. Inuksuit is completely different: There is no designated area for the audience, and attendees are encouraged to walk around and discover the varied aural experiences. Additionally, the sounds of bird chirping, raindrops falling, and branches breaking below your feet are now part of the piece and not something to be disregarded. Everyone should feel encouraged to listen differently.

 

What inspired you to lead this production?

tumblr_ln7fsy1Fzp1qka8qbo1_500My biggest inspiration for producing this piece was my experience at the Chosen Vale Percussion Seminar in the summer of 2014. Doug Perkins and Amy Garaphic are the organizers of this seminar, and also very involved with JLA and have produced a number of performances of Inuksuit. That summer, Adams was invited to be a composer-in-residence for the program and we had the privilege of playing through the percussion parts of his piece Sila: The Breath of the World before the premier performance at Lincoln Center. Sila is written for large ensemble and voices, so we only represented a fraction of the final product, and the experience was really moving for us all. I was able to learn about his experiences and inspirations first hand, and developed a deep interest in learning more and performing this major work for percussion.

Seattle is so fast-paced that many of us rarely, if ever, take a moment to take in the sounds around us. As many of my friends and coworkers could tell you, I often notice and appreciate (often by mimicking) the sounds around me – the accidental clink of a glass, interesting rhythms created by birds or builders, and anything else that sounds interesting in my environment. You could say perhaps I’m living in an eternal state of 4’33”, and I’m often curious how others don’t take the time to hear the beauty or intrigue in any of these sounds. Inuksuit requires that the listener engage the sounds of their environment. It’s a really exciting to me to invite people to listen this way, in a “shape-your-own experience” environment.

I’d also like to throw thanks out to the organizations that helped make this presentation possible. The Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, Washington State Percussive Arts Society, and the Seattle Symphony.