Danger: Learning Ahead!

11892276_10153305961961144_3684635102753878591_nWith the start of another year just days away, it made me nostalgic to notice my first music dictionary on the shelf last night. My private teacher in high school, Mr. Vernon Ashcraft, had stressed the importance of taking a music dictionary along to college. I was very lucky to have a teacher in my youth who instilled the importance of knowing terms, composers, and music history. Although I would soon graduate to more lengthy tomes, encyclopedias and indices, this little book represents the gateway. I often browsed through the book, each entry leading to an exploration through the pages and a journey across the ages.
I wax nostalgic not because the pages are yellowed, nor the binding cracked. (Although a little at the price: Wow, $1.95!). Rather, It is the remembered thrill of learning, something that lies ahead for all students who are open and inquisitive.

Recommended Reading: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

41scrfT+X3L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_There are not many books that I would recommend everyone read, for there are indeed different strokes for different folks, but this is definitely book I would recommend to everyone on the planet. Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life stands alone as a book, but is also a support text for her visionary Charter for Compassion. Go to CharterForCompassion.org for more info. The very idea of setting out a 12-step program like those used in Alcoholics Anonymous points to the very real need that we must first realize “we have a problem” in the world. Armstrong not only identifies the problems caused by a lack of compassion, she also sets out a very logical plan to address this on a personal, community, national and global level. That she does so by concisely using examples from throughout history and across all faith and cultural traditions points to the only obvious solution available to us: living in compassion. I’ve rarely read a more intelligent and lucid approach that capably speaks to every person and every culture. This is a book I will read and refer to again and again. It is not a book to read and place on the shelf, but rather a book to live by, an attempt to shift the weight of intolerance towards the concept of compassion and understanding. Armstrong acknowledges that the path ahead will be difficult. It is not a rosy, feel good approach.The charge is to engage in a radical way of thinking, one supported throughout our shared human history by sages, poets, philosophers, playwrights, and enlightened leaders. It is a challenge for each of us to do our part, and as Gandhi urged, to be the change we wish to see in the world. I for one am thankful to Karen Armstrong for presenting this in an intelligent, thought-provoking book, and it is my honor to recommend it to readers everywhere.

Copyright, 2015 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Orcas Islands Chamber Music Festival

2015-May-14-web-sliderI’m heading to the great Pacific Northwest to do a couple of classes and preconcert lecture for the Orcas Islands Chamber Music Festival this weekend.  Talking about music is a lot like writing about music, just no need to spell check! If you find yourself in the region, come check out this fantastic summer festival in an unforgettable setting!

http://oicmf.org/

The Lions of Childhood

Today’s blog entry is a departure from the usual posts about music.  But not really.  Musicians often have passions that are informed by compassion for others.  Now you know one of mine.

cecilthelionAslan. Elsa. The Lions Club International, Snagglepuss, Lippy the Lion. MGM. The Wizard of Oz.
Here’s an idea. Think of all the lions from your childhood: in literature, movies, cartoons, corporate logos, sports teams. The image is ubiquitous for a reason. The life of a big cat, and lions in particular, stand for something integral to the human psyche, as a mythic, yet LIVING symbol. It helps define our social group, concepts of strength, family, struggle and success. In many ways, the lion is a reflection of ourselves.

People have been the cause of many extinctions. Some by direct actions; some by changing the ecology. We wiped out the Passenger Pigeon in recent times, and probably the Mastodon and Wooly Mammoth in prehistoric times. Humans pushed the lion out of Europe and most of Asia. People almost wiped out the American Bison and beaver because of greed, but then the ECONOMICS changed. People almost wiped out the American Bald Eagle due to DDT usage, but realized in enough time for CHANGE to be made. But there is little doubt that our species exerts great pressure on the world.

But we humans also have a kernel of understanding, or at least the potential for it– knowing that PRESERVATION extends beyond our own species and individual self-interests. While civilization had always pressed against the wild, we as a species have also gained deep meaning from it. Cave paintings from far in the past show our interaction with nature. Religious stories and metaphors we still value today include every manner of animal: reptiles, primates, insects, amphibians, fish, whales, birds, etc. And big cats, notably lions.

OK. Now imagine yourself traveling 150-200+ years into the future. Children may read these works containing lions (or other animals) and see these images as no longer living. They may hear more than one movement of Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals as fossils. They may need reminding that a lion was once a real thing, like a dinosaur or saber-toothed cat. Or a thing mythologized, like a dragon–something belonging to the past, not the present.

It’s not a far putt from where we are today. Does that bother you? It does me.
Now, think of doing something about it, stopping the slaughter and reversing the trend. We’ve done it before for some species. We’ve failed to save others. Will we choose to at least try? I, for one, know on which side of the line to stand.

Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.

“Bach, Beethoven, and Bedlam” (by Gerald Elias)

rlbaldwin2:

Some great insights from my friend and colleague (and now celebrated mystery author!) Gerald Elias. Witty, insightful and TRUE! Check out this article and then check out his excellent novels set in the classical music world. Don’t worry, I’ll be watching my back!

Originally posted on SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN:

Gerald Elias makes his EQMM debut in our September/October 2015 double issue (on sale August 11), with the story “Where the Buffalo Roam.” He is not a new writer, however; he’s the award-winning author of the Daniel Jacobus mystery novels, set in the world of classical music. As a former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, he knows that world well. He tells EQMM that he has performed on five continents as violinist, conductor, and composer. For the past decade he has been music director for the Vivaldi by Candlelight concerts in Salt Lake City. In his post he talks about his dual identity as writer and musician, and the points at which the two professions converge and diverge.—Janet Hutchings

Picture this: A hundred white-tie-and-tailed musicians whipped into a frenzy as the music cascades toward the thunderous climax of the finale of Brahms…

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Learning Joy from the Blues

B.B. Kings

“The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.” — B.B. King

There have been thousands of tributes and stories posted today regarding the passing of Blues great B.B. King. Likely a tribute from someone outside the popular music industry will go unnoticed. One from a classical music conductor and college educator is certainly apt to be lost in the shuffle. But considering his legacy today, I am nonetheless inspired to write a few thoughts about how a musician like B.B. King can serve as one of the best teachers for musicians of any genre.

Certainly there is no need here to list the myriad of accomplishments and influences that Mr. King had on the music industry for the past 60+ years. And while, King lacked the movie-star looks of Elvis Presley or the blazing technique of Jerry Lee Lewis, I’d argue that he has perhaps had more influence worldwide and across a broader spectrum than his more flashy colleagues. Blues, jazz, country and rock musicians regularly mention how influential he was to the development of their individual style.

His electrifying presence was felt on the music itself. What B.B. King had, and the reason every musician should listen to his playing, was an ability to communicate. Not with outer charisma or flashy stage presence, but through musical gesture. With music. Through music. And for music. His innovation lies in his ability to play chamber music, the most useful skill any musician can have.

It is instructive to listen to B.B. King play alongside other great musicians. But perhaps it is more enlightening to realize that he had the unusual ability to play chamber music with himself. One of his trademarks was, of course, his guitar and her namesake song, Lucille. The personal approach to every note provided B.B. King the ability to have a conversation with himself, not merely accompanying himself, but improvising a conversation and developing a story though music.

“I tried to connect my singing voice to my guitar an’ my guitar to my singing voice. Like the two was talking to one another.” — B.B. King

Here’s a video of that hallmark song:

It was a career of playing like this that inspired numerous musicians. Future blues and jazz legends listened and learned, and evolved their own voices. Rock icons did the same. Eric Clapton even paid homage in this fun song and video:

But can classical musicians can also learn from this approach? A former Associate Concertmaster with the Utah Symphony and violinist with the Boston Symphony, and respected music teacher Gerald Elias thinks so. His social media post this morning gave clear instructions to his students. And as a respected author as well, Jerry knows a thing or two about communication.

“Violin students: If you want to learn how to play with feeling, listen to B.B. King.” – Gerald Elias

Sure, B.B. King was just playing basic blues scales, and altering them in interesting ways. But he was also making new music with each riff. Composing on the fly. A lively, rapturous creation with each progression. Though he was playing the Blues, one can hear the joy bursting forth.

Can a classical violinist do the same in a series of Carl Flesch Scale Studies, or perhaps use it as inspiration to devise a new cadenza for a concerto? Can the very methods that B.B. King perfected be used to open a new energy in classical performance while staying true to the roots of our traditions–just as King did with the Blues? I’d have to say it is worth a shot. Apparently, so do others. Yo-Yo Ma has branched out, as has Joshua Bell, Richard Stoltzman and many others. Their results have been quite attractive. And now they provide a new thread for us to experience. We must listen with discernment to all of the greats, all traditions, whatever the style may be. New possibilities lie just around the corner.

I never had the good fortune to hear B.B. King live. As close as I got was eating at his place in Memphis (see picture above). His music has inspired me to listen deeper, more critically and more joyfully. And thankfully, he leaves that legacy for all of us through his music. Now it’s our turn.

Thanks, Mr. King. Rest in Peace.

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Music as Action: From Baltimore to Baghdad

Don't Keep Calm We’ve heard it (and probably said it) before:

It’s not my job.

They don’t pay me enough to do that.

I’m an ARTIST. I shouldn’t have to be involved in THAT.

That’s “their” problem.

While we are busy complaining about why we shouldn’t get involved in our own professional world (and watching news coverage of other events we are happy to be removed from) it is instructive to remember that some people are faced with a much different reality. For some, the choice of whether or not to get involved is a response beyond a personal need, and in fact produces far greater benefit.

Many of us seem to enjoy quibbling at the minutiae of our careers; things we can’t really do much about, like the temperature of the concert hall stage or less than ideal acoustics. We should remember, however, that we often do so from the comfort of our own complacency. Complaining about things and shifting blame is arguably human nature, but it also has become something we mindlessly aspire to in our comfortable lives. Actually doing something positive about a problem is an apparent rarity.

Kudos to the Baltimore Symphony and conductor Marin Alsop for doing something this past week. They took a step towards healing amidst a volatile situation in Baltimore. Alsop and the BSO provided an outdoor concert for the city, just a few days after the unrest began. They did something for the community. No telling how effective it was, but it certainly was a statement in the right direction: Things that truly matter will continue. The citizens responded with enthusiasm. (I might add, with better attendance than professional sports).

Baltimore Symphony Photo

Photo via Baltimore Symphony Facebook Page

The Baltimore Orioles bat against the Chicago White Sox during a baseball game without fans Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns the game was closed to the public. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

The Baltimore Orioles bat against the Chicago White Sox during a baseball game without fans Wednesday, April 29, 2015, in Baltimore. Due to security concerns the game was closed to the public. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Photo via Time.com

We are fortunate that so few of us need take real risks to make an artistic statement. My colleague, Karim Wasfi, has been faced with the question of how to take action in his particular reality. Maestro Wasfi is the conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra and is a professional cellist. In the face of very real, life-threatening danger, Karim and others like him continue to make affirmations about what is truly worthy, thus insuring that the concepts of humanity and beauty remain a part of the conversation.

Perhaps Karim’s recent Facebook post will help bring us back to reality:

“I am stuck at home and imprisoned by the threat of three car bombs around mansur area, lost my Beethoven rehearsal with the symphony…”

Maestro Wasfi, not one to back away from the challenge of presenting classical music in a war-torn country, has made an effort to not be cowed by the threat. While he is undoubtedly careful, surely a survival trait in such a place, Wasfi does what every maestro and musician should do: insure beauty exists in the world. Whatever it takes.

“We have every sect in the orchestra, Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, women, Kurds. I’ve also launched a youth orchestra and an after-school youth academy where we teach music, civics, manners and the like to almost 300 kids. We pay poor kids to attend. Some even come all the way across town from Sadr City. Yes, I’m sure there are fanatics who disapprove of the symphony, but we’ve generated such goodwill that they’re afraid to oppose us publicly. The Institute of Fine Arts lay disused for two years until we made it our home. We brought new life to the area so the entire neighborhood helps keep us safe.” –from a 1/19/2011 Wall Street Journal Interview:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703333504576080452174478650

Responding to conflict with music. History is seemingly repeating itself.

Recently, Karim Wasfi took his cello and visited areas recently bombed by terrorists. It’s reminiscent of Vedran Smailović, the “Cellist of Sarajevo,” who played in bombed-out buildings during the Bosnian War.  Here is a video of Maestro Wasfi performing cello at the site of a recent car bomb attack:

Music as Action in Iraq. Music as Action in Baltimore. Now let us question why we are not doing the same in our relatively safer communities. The opportunity for leadership surely exists. As does the talent. And, I’ll wager, the need.

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

For more info:

The following link is to the Washington Post story about Maestro Wasfi’s recent activities:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/after-car-bombs-an-iraqi-musician-shows-up-with-his-cello/2015/05/06/6daf256a-edf7-11e4-8050-839e9234b303_story.html

NPR story regarding Iraqi artists’ roles in the fight against extremism:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/09/15/348760910/iraqs-artists-defy-extremists-with-bows-brushes-and-a-low-profile

And finally, a story about the Baltimore Symphony Concert amidst the conflicts in that city:

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/after-turmoil-baltimore-symphony-plays-free-outdoor-concert/