Making a Difference: An Open Letter to the Symphony

Dear SLS Colleagues,

Perhaps like you, I’m spending the day recovering from Shostakovich. A dull tiredness and the still-persistent DSCH(!) going through my head are evidence of a Shosty-hangover! This is mitigated, however, by the satisfaction that we gave a fantastic performance to open the 2014-15 season. It is, of course, my job to publicly say that “every concert is a good concert,” but Saturday’s performance was special and sure to become a memorable event in the history of our ensemble.

In spite of the rain, football parking issues, and the monumental challenge of the music waiting on every stand, we came, we played, we conquered! The audience was receptive; the orchestra was prepared, and the performance was electrifying.

Certainly our performance was not perfect. (What live performance is?). But what we may have lacked in perfection, we more than made up for in dedication to the music and message. I have rarely heard this ensemble play with such conviction. Solo wind chairs, in particular, were stunning. The audience’s ovation was genuine and deserved by all on stage.

The obvious enthusiasm after the performance was further punctuated a post-concert comment from a patron:

“This shouldn’t be possible with a volunteer orchestra.”

Even more poignantly, this post-concert comment was received by Alecia, one of our SLS violinists, from a woman she didn’t know:

“I cried in the first movement because it sounded as if the music touched heaven.”

I’ve no idea what caused this woman to express this, why she was moved in this way, or even exactly where in the score she was referring, but the fact that she sought out one of us to express her feelings is important. It shows that the work we do, the music we share, and the lives we touch make it worthwhile. People notice. And when moved, they want to thank us for the experience. You are all engaged in making a positive change in our world, and for that you have my thanks as well.

It is indeed possible. And it is happening for eight more concerts this season and undoubtedly in future seasons as well. Music of Dvorak, Beethoven and Williams are next up. Onward! But first, please enjoy your week off!

Musically yours,


The Forest Through the Trees (or, Just How Loud Is That?)

brahms3I’ve enjoyed seeing a question come up, on ubiquitous Facebook of course, about one of the orchestra excerpts I’ve posted for next month’s orchestra auditions. The question demonstrates how we notice a detail, but cannot always deduce a satisfying answer, no matter how rational the conclusion. This happens all the time in music (and life).

Here’s the excerpt:

sotto voce

Perplexed, the student asked good questions. Excellent questions, in fact. Here’s the question:

 * “Music friends! I have a dynamic question (that is, if you consider sotto voce a dynamic instruction). In the last movement of Brahms’ third symphony, the really soft opening figure returns a few times, but the dynamic is slightly different each time. Here for example, the opening figure is piano e sotto voce but the next time it appears the dynamic is just a pianissimo. Am I to assume that the figure is always sotto voce–which would make the second appearance softer than the opening–or is pianissimo just Brahms’ short way of writing piano e sotto voce again?”

Here’s a link to the movement on You Tube. Listen for yourself and make up your own mind. This is where interpretation meets function:

Now, even if you don’t read music, I’ll try to make the issue clear. The examples in the question are outlined with a rectangle. The initial “p (piano) e sotto voce” indication is contrasted with the later pp (pianissimo) indication for basically the same material. Roughly, the first indication translates as “soft and in a soft voice”; the second, as “very soft.”

The responses to this student’s question included insights, and a little humor, from professional orchestra musicians, conductors and other students.

The initial indication almost seems redundant: why wouldn’t you play something soft with a soft voice? Unless, you consider “sotto voce” to be a color. Ah, now we are getting somewhere. At least that’s what one astute professional musician suggested. String players can get all sorts of colors by placing the bow over the fingerboard, varying bow speeds, and using more or less vibrato, etc. This must be the solution!

Well, not entirely. I will agree that this is an excellent approach to get the right sound. But Brahms could have simply used the Italian designations for those techniques (sul tasto, non vibrato, etc.). So. it was not merely a certain technique he was after. But a color or timbre may indeed be on the right track.

Another comment suggested the later pianissimo designation (which could be interpreted as twice as soft as the initial dynamic marking) was employed to contrast the loud dynamic of letter B, and then prepare the intense crescendo only two measures later. Again, this is an excellent point, and a very utilitarian explanation. An entire orchestra of 90+ musicians will need a lot of road signs to negotiate this within six measures. And a conductor will need to monitor and guide it.

All good points, but sometimes music’s answers are not only found on the surface. The student had a very good logical process and was trying to get a clear answer. In an audition you want to do the right thing, of course. But the need to play louder/softer/faster/slower/higher/lower only scratches the surface. We really must get to the reason why this distinction exits. Understanding the “why” requires we dig deeper. And from this deeper understanding you have a chance to play it both correctly and with meaning.

In my opinion, listening beyond the notes provides the answer. This requires analysis as well as aural imagination.   It also requires the study of music history, essentially understanding how Brahms wrote music. Specifically in this case, it is discovering what the initial “snaky motive” is really all about. Brahms, like Beethoven, was fond of using material with numerous possibilities. Intervals, rhythms, fragments…all with amazing potential. So while on the surface Brahms wrote engaging melodies, he also wrote music that was deep, philosophical, and meaningful.

From an interpretational standpoint, I suggest we look and answering WHAT the motive might represent. How does it appear, develop and reappear? Can we make any meaningful leaps of intuition? (Be careful with that last one…)

Analysis and imaginative listening helps me conclude that the opening is actually the key to the entire movement; it becomes clear that the motive is the underpinning. This is akin to an underlying wellspring, a snippet of primordial sound from which Brahms picks out his ideas and shows us his art. A river of ideas and potential exists in a seemingly wandering collection of notes.

Now if that sounds a little too “Wagnerian” for Brahms, consider for a moment that Brahms was a composer’s composer. To understand Brahms, you must understand that he was meticulous; a perfectionist who destroyed much of what he wrote. He was also the type of composer who would sit in the coffee house and jot down ideas as they came to him, sometimes on whatever was available, even a napkin. The music must have been constantly revolving and evolving in his mind.

This motive is running constantly throughout the movement. In fact, I’ll posit that it is going on at letter B, just not audible until all the racket of the forte dynamic dies away.

When we walk in the forest, or journey through a score, we often only see the things in our immediate awareness—trees and rocks; dynamics and articulation. But when we stop to contemplate, the entire universe opens up before us. The underpinnings become apparent. If we consider that if this type of music contains multiple potentialities, then it is like an underground stream—something constantly running underneath the surface, bubbling up at times to reveal itself as the pure source, at other times as nourishment for the roots of plants (themes) or brilliant crystalized mineral deposits that catch our attention. (dynamics and orchestration).

So, in my humble opinion, that piano e sotto voce, is the underlying current of the 4th movement. The pianissimo represents awareness that it is still there as the music becomes defined through the form. Exactly how loud and soft is the wrong question, unless you consider the relationship to the whole.

So, er….what does this mean for the solo bass auditionee?

Take a chance–Play the second one softer!

But you’ll do it more convincingly from the point of awareness. Now let’s move on to those confusing accent/dynamic/stress markings in measures 5-6…


*This question was from an incoming Freshman who will soon discover that Brahms writes this way all the time, also easily seen in the Finale of the 2nd Symphony, and through the use of Passacaglia and Variation. Welcome to college! The universe awaits you!


Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Beyond the1812 Overture


Happy Independence Day to those in the USA! Here’s a reblog of a post from a couple of years ago regarding some alternatives to the staid patriotic American music we are used to hearing this time of year. Still plenty of “Americanism” to go around in these pieces, though! So if you are in the mood for something a little bit different, and a lot bit interesting, check these out!

Originally posted on Before the Downbeat:


Americans love the booming cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.  Many Americans can imagine a great conflict on American soil (bombs bursting in air, and all that).  Except the 1812 Overture is not about America.  Tchaikovsky was referring to another War of 1812: the one where Napoleon’s forces were knocking on the door of Russia and where the tide of the invasion was turned back.  (Yes, that’s why he employed are all those French and Russian tunes).  But despite that, it’s a great example of how Americans adopt a composer and piece to make it something truly their own. It is a deeply patriotic piece.  Just not in the way most Americans think.

Tchaikovsky used more than cannons to get the point across.  He also used tunes that everyone of the time knew, familiar national songs.  American composers in the first half of the 20th century also were quite adept…

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Musical Practice: Onion, or Parfait?

ImageAs musicians, we’ve heard it like a mantra. Go practice! Practice, practice, PRACTICE! There is even guilt associated with it, as in: “I haven’t practiced enough,” or “you violinists need to go practice this passage!” There is even a famous joke about a man who approaches Heifetz (or some other famous musician) and asks:

“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

Answer: “Practice, practice, practice!”

What is the purpose of all this repetition? Are we really training ourselves to be like sideshow monkeys, or is there more we should be aware of in our practice, perhaps a more meaningful way towards results?

“Repetitiveness and dullness are intimately connected. Stuck in repetitive patterns, you lose your intelligence” – Sadhguru

We can easily become slaves to repetition. The dull, ceaseless continuance becomes our song of servitude, rather than a transformative mantra. Without awareness, change, and a sense of fun, our training might doom us to the ultimate crime: Music as Drudgery.

Sadly, this can become a life sentence. I’ve seen it in students as well as professional players. The joy of music disappears into a virtual tar pit of rehearsals, performances, practice and drone-like behavior. The sense of accomplishment and joy transforms to guilt, which then mutates to mindless repetition. One can easily forget why we got into this in the first place.

Certainly, there is a proven method behind musical practice. A certain amount of repetition is necessary, especially when learning a new piece. The body needs training before things become instinctual. We are goal oriented: one skill leads to another. (i.e. learn to shift so that you can play higher notes) But we often fail to remember the WHY of all this repetition.

Music has deep layers of discovery and meaning for everyone, from listener to musical master. Practice is the surface exploration for the musician that gradually leads to deeper understanding. Throughout our practice, we should be attuned to what is being revealed. This can be intellectual, such as noticing intervallic relationships, or spiritually deep, such as: “Oh look, the meaning of life!” This exploration and discovery is the WHY of practice. And continual revelations are magical.

The next time you practice, notice these things.

  • Physical: The logical place to start. What is going on? How are the body parts required for sound production engaged? What is working? What is blocked? Work with your body-mind to discover solutions. Sometimes this requires thinking; other times relaxing into the experience. Be creative with solutions and have fun in the attempt. Practice is where we are allowed to fail, over and over again. We also are permitted to laugh as we fall down!
  • Mental: Analyze the music as you practice. Discover the patterns: sequences, rhythms, intervals, motives and the like. Use whatever grasp you have of music theory to analyze. And if you lack understanding, be curious. This is the catalyst to learn more about music! Open a book, take a class, or ask a colleague or teacher.
  • Imaginative/Emotional: As you practice a specific technical passage or issue, use your imagination to discover how this one element ties with others to give meaning to the music. How does it fit into the phrase? How might it effect or change the interpretation? How does it relate to the emotion or story of the music? Don’t be afraid to adjust your understanding as the “play” unfolds.

Transformative realization occurs as we become aware of all aspects of a piece of music. Yes, practice is complicated, but it also allows us to see deeper while having fun doing so. To paraphrase a scene from the movie, Shrek:

Teacher: For your information, there’s a lot more to practice than people think. Practice is like onions!

Student: It stinks?

Teacher: Yes… No!

Student: Oh, it makes you cry?

Teacher: No! (Well, sometimes) No! Layers. Onions have layers. Practice has layers. Both have layers.

Student: Oh. You know, I don’t like onions. What about cake? Everybody loves cake! You know what ELSE everybody likes? Parfaits! Parfaits are delicious!

Teacher: NO! (Focus, please). Don’t be a dense beast of burden! Practice is like onions! End of story!

Student: Parfait’s gotta be the most delicious thing on the whole planet!

Teacher: Bye-bye! See ya later. Go practice

(Later, teacher realizes: Oh! Practice is sometimes exactly like parfait!)


Copyright 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Image of Donkey from the Shrek franchise. The copyright belongs to Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks Animation. Source:




A Reminder: Push Yourself To Grow


“Here’s the thing: you don’t have much time. You’re alive now and not later, not before.”

Originally posted on Thought Catalog:

If left to my own devices, I love being comfortable. I love things that are easy. Who doesn’t? But sometimes, I love to be too comfortable. (Don’t you?) I want to expend minimum effort whilst receiving maximum return. I want to wear pajamas and stay inside all day but still fall in love. I want to take a month to reply to an email from my friend in another city, and then wish we were closer. I want to ace my exams without studying for them. I read articles telling me that I am enough, that I don’t ever need to change, that self-love is the best and only love — and then I do nothing to change this.

Let’s be clear. Being too comfortable is not self-love. How am I loving myself when I encourage stagnancy? How am I loving myself when I’m not forcing myself to grow? Growing is…

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It’s Okay to Teach Yourself a New Trick

ImageThis time of year is always stressful for students who are finishing their degrees and are trying to break in to the profession. It’s tough to get that first job, especially in music and academia. Be patient—Stick to your dreams and values. But, there is no shame in taking some other kind of employment to make ends meet. Same goes for students who need to find summer work.

I was no different. Here are jobs I had in the summers and while waiting for my break:
Funeral Home (yes, really); Construction; Security for the Denver Broncos; Walt Disney Company; Pizza Delivery; Musician for the Velvet Strings at the Broadmoor Hotel.
I learned something in every case. Plus these jobs paid the bills.

So go ahead and pay the bills, but still practice your art. BE READY. Your chance may be right around the corner.

Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

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