Blog: Cutting Through the Noise

Blog of Cellist Joshua Roman
The business of playing music

Ever wonder how a classically trained musician from a conservatory background handles the day-to-day of being a self-employed businessperson? So do I. Actually, I think I'm getting better at this whole balance thing. But it's still quite a challenge, one that has unforeseen pitfalls and nuances around every corner. And I even have a great team and lots of help! I wonder sometimes if two of those practice hours every week back in school could have been more useful spent at the nearby cafeteria eavesdropping on the the MBA students. Or better yet, in an actual business class!

Such thinking is not unusual in these hard economic times. Some music schools are catching on, and several are starting programs to help students get a better picture of the real life, where skipping classes to go to the practice room may not actually be as effective as achieving a good balance between networking (and honing the required communicative skills) and developing your artistry on your instrument. There are also new books available on the subject. One such book is Beyond Talent by Angela Myles Beeching. Browsing the internet you may also discover David Cutler's book on musicians and career building, or looking even further, discussion groups and blogs for those needing advice.

That's all very well and good, but sometimes I just want to play the cello! I've realized the importance of presenting the whole picture from the beginning. My generation grew up thinking that if we practiced, we'd have what we wanted. If we played well, we'd be a star. So even after creative-minded teachers and classes, and hard work to build effective habits, the default is to pick up the cello and let everything else sort itself out. And it's a hard default to resist! The magical pull of the "it" factor, and talent, are hard to take out of the equation. And rightly so, at least somewhat. No matter how savvy your hobnobbing may be, when it comes time to sit (or stand, for my vocal, viol-this-or-that, and otherwise non cellistic friends) on stage and deliver, you'd better have something more to give your audience than a well thought out program proposal and a sweet Facebook Fan Page!

My point is this: It's time to start training kids for the job. All of the job. It doesn't take that much, when I left conservatory I would have benefitted tremendously from a few simple programming guidelines and instructions on writing a proper email introduction, or knowing how to prioritize a weekly schedule. And there are even more shapes and sizes of opportunity out there than performers/entrepreneurs to fill them. Young musicians need to be well-versed in the parameters of those opportunities and the skills necessary to move from the practice room to the real world. Let the default be balanced. Lessen the surprise, angst, panic, and wasted time when someone who only knows how to tune passages realizes they need to grasp other skills as well. It's time for those of us already out there to be complete and transparent role-models even as we reinvent ourselves and as the music world works to find a diverse array of paths to overcome its current challenges.

Hmm... In the meantime, here I am, writing a blog when I should be practicing. Then again, I did put in quite a few hours with Midge today... Screw it! One more hour of quiet practice shouldn't hurt! After all, in sum of these things, the cello must be at the center, else all other efforts ring false and fall flat.

Oh, young reader who aspires to great things, may you never see your life as a musician divided and at odds, but as one continuous flow of skill, talent, hard work and communication as you reach people on, off, and backstage (or online, heh).

--- editor(that's me)'s note: I am honored to be chosen to attend the Association of Arts Presenters 2011 conference in January. I will learn more about the business of music, meet all kinds of fascinating movers and shakers, and perform a showcase in Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie through their Young Performers Career Advancement Program. Practice, practice practice. And during those commas get lots of advice for your applications! ---

Classical Music and the Internet

Note: The following is a reformatted version of a presentation I gave at TEDxRainier on 10/10/10. Since giving this speech, the YouTube Symphony has announced their next event. It will be in Sydney, Australia, in March 2011. I have also recorded an invitation to audition for this exciting event.

In my personal experience, performing in homes, for large crowds of symphony lovers, in bars, in schools and Internal Displacement Camps in Uganda, and almost everywhere in between, music transcends language and cultural barriers, and has potential to give voice to the soul of humanity. Music and art can inspire us to look within, to express our emotions in ways we could not otherwise, or to share a connection that only a human can fully appreciate. To hear Glenn Gould playing the “Goldberg Variations”, or Jascha Heifetz performing Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” is an experience in transcendence and pushing technical and expressive capabilities humans are endowed with. Listening to the great orchestras, chamber musicians, and soloists of the world in superb concert halls is something that can be an amazing experience, and I am a huge advocate of hearing great music by great performers in great halls. This last Tuesday I went to Carnegie Hall to see the Philadelphia Orchestra, and could not imagine a better way to have spent my evening! (Okay, maybe to be with them on stage with the Dvorak Cello Concerto, or another great Concerto... but still) I have also seen the orchestras of Cleveland, Berlin, and Vienna at Carnegie Hall, and have had some of my most moving musical experiences in great halls around the world. What I’d like to share today though, are the unique possibilities for the musical community at large that are now available through the internet.

My Carnegie Hall debut was in April of 2009 at the first ever performance of the YouTube Symphony, where I performed the “Sarabande” from the 1st Suite for solo cello by J.S. Bach. Google, YouTube, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and international media descended upon the iconic performance venue with classical music stars and an orchestra made up of professionals and non-professionals who auditioned for a spot by posting videos on YouTube. This amazing event was advertised and characterized in a variety of ways, but the concept that stood out to me was the idea that here was an event designed to bring attention to the center section of the Classical Music Pyramid.

If we look at the Classical Music community as a pyramid with professional performers at the top, amateur musicians in the center and those who listen but don’t perform as the base, we see how most of our current focus is at the top of the pyramid. There are orchestras all over the world, most able to perform repertoire that would be considered challenging for even the best orchestras of 200 years ago. Across the board, technical perfection is being pushed to new limits by each generation, especially with recordings of great performances to listen and compare to. High level conservatories are turning out more young virtuosos than ever before. But with all this skill and talent, and the constant drive for perfection, where is the sense of community for those who are not top soloists or in a major orchestra? In the 18th and even into the 19th Centuries, chamber music (music for the home!) was an integral component in the proliferation of classical music. Amateur musicians played together regularly, and the goal was not to win the next Grammy, but to share in the joys of creating music with friends and family. When a composer wrote a string quartet, the goal was to sell as many copies of the sheet music as possible, not ONLY to have the best and brightest perform it. The classical music community was full of self-created opportunities for musicians of all skill levels, not just to watch and be consumers, but to also be involved. Some of these opportunities exist today, often in the form of community orchestras, school orchestra programs, and a few amateur chamber music festivals. By supporting, diversifying, and expanding these opportunities, I believe we would see more growth in all areas of the Classical Music Pyramid.

The YouTube Symphony brought attention to the center of the Classical Music Pyramid by honoring the tradition of classical music performance and pioneering a new form of musical community through one of today’s most powerful tools for sharing: the internet.

Two of the most exciting results of this event were:

1) Many non-professional musicians were able to travel across the world (at YouTube’s expense!) to perform at Carnegie Hall. These YouTube Symphony members were selected by online voting; any one who played any instrument, anywhere in the world, could upload a video and have a chance at being selected.

2) An online classical music community developed as many musicians realized that they could have ownership of their musical ideas, share them with an online audience, and receive new ideas and suggestions from fellow musicians. One might think of this platform as a virtual “living room” for a new kind of musical community.

As we know, YouTube and other video networking sites give anyone a chance to have their voice heard. Sharing performances online provides top artists with the quickest and most widespread access to audiences around the world. It allows musicians of all experience levels, from listener to top soloist, to share their ideas and interpretations. This dialogue can shape current trends toward relevant and interesting musical explorations beyond the “perfection” sought by so many and attained by so few. In fact, open source sharing, rather than diluting, can even strengthen skills by exposing vulnerabilities, which brings an honesty to musical communication. Giving a platform to people with ideas in music (bringing more attention to the center of the pyramid), strengthens the entire pyramid by creating opportunities for involvement by amateurs, connoisseurs, professionals, and new listeners. I believe that one of the many ways classical music can stay relevant in the 21st century is to make use of this “living room” on the internet to better serve all parts of the Classical Music Pyramid.

As a performing musician, the Internet is changing me as well. In addition to keeping a blog, a Facebook page, and uploading videos of previews, interviews, and performances, I am currently in the middle of a project to upload the complete 40 Etudes for Cello by David Popper onto YouTube. (yes, dorky, cello-centric project, I know) These are Studies that almost every cellist must play in lessons, but rarely performs. I record these videos with my laptop and upload them unedited to YouTube. Rather than being a finished product, this project shows my journey as I explore the potential online sharing has for challenging my own musical life.

The Popper Project: Part Two

Wow. This is one of the most difficult challenges I've set before myself. And therefore, one of the most compelling. Having just posted Popper no. 25 last week, 15 more to go seems doable. The most difficult part of the Popper Project is the goal to post one a week. Still, each etude presents unique demands that make the endless pursuit of perfection rewarding and fun (as well as... endless).

In my previous post on The Popper Project, I wrote about the line of focus that is required to record something, not just practice it. This is related to the concept of Practicing vs. Performing, and in a greater sense, being in the present moment. Lately I really have been realizing how many levels are ripe for present-moment-thinknig. I've always considered practicing and performing on the cello to be an ideal situation in which to develop this kind of full focus. In order to perform (or record), you must have and execute a plan, all the while going above and beyond architecture, and letting the improvisation of emotion carry the communication forward. The interesting thing is, you cannot simply leave this to the moment of performance. If you spend all of your time thinking and organizing, then when feeling comes along, often the strong emotions can seem overpowering, and mute their own effect by tying up the very structural lines they flow through. Occasionally this can be sublime, but with repeated or sustained practice, simply gruesome and overindulgent.

Interestingly enough, this does not just apply to practicing for a performance, but also to planning a day, or a week, to practice! Too much time wrapped up in the details of a schedule, and nothing ever gets done. Too much indulgence of supposed "in the moment" feelings without prioritization, and time is also wasted, or a sense of the big picture lost. Which is worse? Is one worse?

It is at moments like this when I get inspired to drop everything and practice (against my own "prioritize for emotion first, then execute" advice). This time I am stuck - my flight just started boarding. Plenty of time to plan in the 6 1/2 hours aboard this plane (with lots of free snacks. I love JetBlue.).

I've been amazed at the following the project has developed. Hundreds of subscribers on the Popper Project YouTube channel, emails, notes, facebook posts, and even a write-up in Strings Magazine, but most of all the inner drive to improve my cellistic skills and not give up, have been keeping me motivated, and I will finish this project.

More to come.

"Americana" - by Dan Visconti

The following is a guest entry by my good friend and prolific composer, Dan Visconti. The subject matter is his new Sonata, "Americana", commissioned for yours truly by Town Hall Seattle and slated to be premiered on June 10.

I’ve known Joshua for nearly ten years now—since he was a sixteen-year-old!—and while during that time he and I have collaborated on a number of projects as students, we had yet to embark on our first full-fledged collaboration as young professionals. I had just returned from a year in Berlin when Joshua informed me that there might be an opportunity to secure support for an extended work, something around thirty minutes that would premiere the following year. So as I began to imagine the kind of piece I might want to compose for Joshua, I was acutely conscious of my year abroad and my own identity as an American composer.

Returning to my home outside of Washington, D.C. brought with it an influx of American patriotic music, and I felt an urge to respond to this overwhelming sense of American-ness in the form of a cello sonata that explored the simplicity and sense of community that forms the backbone of American popular folksong. The new sonata, titled “Americana”, is just that—a wide-ranging and somewhat scrappy patchwork of folk-styled melodies inspired by images drawn from American culture. As I learned during encounter with my more “theoretical” German colleagues, the sense of being unburdened by tradition—that anything is possible—is a uniquely American trait. The idea of composing music as form of play—as a way of expressing my curiosity about sound and by extension, myself and my own limits—has less to do with continuing or reacting to any particular musical tradition and much more to do with my desire to disassemble and recombine the sound-artifacts of everyday culture in way that is personally satisfying and expressive—almost like the challenge of solving a puzzle.

One of the many puzzles in working with a great performer like Joshua involves freedom: how much should the composer allow? How much should be left up to the performer? In working with Joshua on this piece, I opted to make space for more freedom that in some of my more heavily notated chamber and orchestral works; this was to be a solo piece, after all, and I wanted Joshua to have the space to be a soloist. There are also semi-improvised passages that allow Joshua to rock out within the confines of certain prescribed parameters. There are also new playing techniques that, while clearly defined in the score, require a little ingenuity and experimenting to execute, and thus there is a certain amount of freedom that comes with these as well. Some special playing techniques include a passage where Joshua plays with his bow under the strings, producing wide intervals on his outer two strings that would normally be impossible; the tone is dark, viol-like, and touchingly rustic. Another passage uses ricochet bowing on dead pitches to imitate the cadence of military drums; sometimes one of the most interesting things an instrument can do is to sound like another instrument!

This sonata has truly been a “work in progress” through many stages of revision, but I think that Joshua, Helen, and I are all very excited that the premiere is drawing closer. Commissioning a new work can be a long, multi-step process but securing the commission is just the beginning. Now after a year of writing, revising, and rehearsing I’m looking forward to seeing what began life as “my piece” become “our piece”—something that each of us has natured and invested in.

Practicing vs. Performing

"The way you practice it is the way you will perform it." These words echo in my head often, usually in my father's voice. I'm not sure where he first heard it, or perhaps he was inspired and came up with it on his own. In any case, it has stuck with me through the years.

When I was very young, I think that practicing like a performance motivated me to think about the quality of tone, and intonation, that I produced. My first teacher, Lacy McLarry, would often advise me to "close your eyes and imagine that you are in Carnegie Hall", which also gave me a sense of grand purpose and detailed focus. He is also largely responsible for my Heifetz obsession. :) But over the years, these admonitions have come to mean different things, often evolving as I reach different levels of cellistic understanding. (Also, after performing in Carnegie Hall last year, I now have a different, less fantastical but no less exciting view when I close my eyes.)

Practicing vs. Performing. Analytical vs. Free? There's just something about being in front of an audience that tears down the walls, and I feel free. This feeling is hard to replicate in a small practice room, or on a hotel bed facing a mirror, my own familiar visage staring back and daring me to be vulnerable in front of my harshest critic. Is practicing the pursuit of perfection, and performing the art of transcendence?

No. This is where the struggle, and joy, of practicing lies for me right now. How can I play in the moment, every moment, even when I am "getting ready", or "wood-shedding"? How to keep multiple lines of focus running at the same time: feel the phrase, experience and project the emotion, stay relaxed and strong, keep good hand position, make that shift, love the ring of that chord...? Visualization is key, and trust is essential. Practicing is all about building trust. Finding what is good and repeating it, helping it grow, not just berating yourself for mistakes and giving the foibles undeserved attention.

Bach today was better. Some moments really felt connected, not just like preparation, but a real musical and meaningful experience. The amazing and ironic thing is that when you can let go, even in practice, often those little bobbles disappear of their own accord (a concept explored in "The Inner Game of Tennis") and you experience a unique and exhilarating energy that touches on what makes performing such a human phenomenon.

Every note counts. Each phrase can mean something. The cellist sitting alone in his room is also worthy of feeling moved by the music, even as it flows through him.

Practice it the way you will perform it.