Groupmuse: “Because art is better with your friends”

Groupmuse is blowing up.

It certainly seemed that way yesterday evening, when more than 30 people were crammed into my friend Jennie’s living room on the Upper West Side. A few were friends and neighbors, but most were strangers, who heard about the concert house party online. Some came in couples or larger groups, but one young woman about my age had come by herself. She told me she heard about Groupmuse in the recent Wall Street Journal article, and checked online for one in her neighborhood. She saw the listing for Jennie’s Groupmuse, so she showed up to the apartment of a stranger, not knowing what to expect. Turns out she had a great time – she was one of the very last to leave, at nearly midnight.

downloadHannah Cho, Greg Cardi, violins; Caeli Smith, viola; Jennie Brent, cello

Groupmuse is an online platform that organizes events that are half party, half classical music concert. On their website, they match musicians with people who want to host. Anyone and everyone is encouraged to host – even if you have a tiny apartment. “We’ve had Groupmuses in apartments with water damage and sticky floors. We cram 10 people into a bedroom and have a soloist play,” Sam Bodkin, founder, told the audience during his introduction.

Luckily for my quartet, we had an un-sticky, beautiful room to play in. There weren’t enough chairs for everyone, so the younger crowd (25 and under) sat at our feet, while the rest of the audiences sat in chairs and spilled into the kitchen and hallway.

The event was informal, and the excitement – of meeting new people, and of the experimental concert setting – was palpable. My quartet performed Haydn’s “Emperor” quartet, and several tangos by Michael McLean. The audience listened intently during each movement, and hooted and hollered in between. We felt like rock stars. The room was filled with conviviality, and I felt giddy with happiness. This is what chamber music was made for.

After the performance, the crowd mingled and drank. We played McLean’s “Csardas” for an encore, and by the time we were finished, at 11:30 pm, the remaining audience members were performing a full-out kick line in the living room. The quartet was laughing so hard we nearly dropped our instruments – not a problem I’ve ever experienced in performance before.

I left the apartment feeling warm and full of love. Great chamber music played in an intimate setting, with a sincere, enthusiastic audience is a delight for performers and attendees alike. Groupmuse is one of the best examples I’ve encountered of what music is meant to do – bring people together.

Photo credit: Asa Maynard

Happy Anniversary!!!

Today, I celebrate an important anniversary – one year with my beloved. My devoted partner, fellow conspirator, and truly my best friend.

I’m talking, of course, about my viola.

iizuka-viola-shot

I met my viola last year, a few days after Thanksgiving, at the home of Hiroshi Iizuka, its maker. I picked it up and played a scale.

Nice to meet you, the viola purred.

I was instantly drawn to its clear tone, quick response, and warm, sweet lower register. And perfect dimensions—15 and 1/2 inches, exactly my size! I knew it was the one. I couldn’t stop looking at it or playing it for days. (And the viola is gorgeous, to boot, with elaborate tattoos on its upper bouts and back.) The attraction hasn’t faded. We’ve had a great year making beautiful music together. My instrument is the envy of every violist in town.

“Is that… an Iizuka?” they ask, as their eyes widen, and voices crack.

“Yes,” I reply.

“You’re a lucky woman,” they sigh, as my viola and I gaze into each other’s eyes, oblivious to the rest of the world.

Happy anniversary, dear viola! Here’s to many more.

 

Learning More than Just the Notes – The Sejong International Music Festival

This month, I had the chance to participate in a brand new music festival: the Sejong International Music Festival, held at the Curtis Institute of Music, in my hometown, Philadelphia.

Sejong presents an unusual opportunity to learn about the teachers’ personal philosophies, on a musical, intellectual, and even spiritual level. Usually, my interactions with teachers are confined to working with them on how better to play the violin, and how better to make music. While, to me, these kinds of lessons are genuinely enthralling, I’ve often wished for a chance to pick my teachers’ brains further, to hear them talk about their lives with the hope of absorbing some of their wisdom. […Read the full post at Violinist.com!]

sejong-piano-quartet

My piano quartet after our performance.

Imperfect Pitch

I have perfect pitch. I’ve always been able to distinguish pitches from each other, as if they were different colors. I was 10 when I first realized I had it. I remember being tested by my sisters – they would press a key on the piano to see if I could name it, which I always could, to their delight.

Lots of my musical friends have perfect pitch, but plenty don’t. It seems to have something to do with how old you were when you started playing. Many of my violinist peers, who, like me, began learning to play before they could read or write, have the ability to pull notes out of the air. But most of my friends who started years later –wind and brass players, mostly – can’t pick an F# out of a lineup.

Though when I was younger, having this ability felt special (“whoa! She has perfect pitch! Quick, what’s this note?”), I haven’t found any real advantages to it, aside from having a leg up in my Ear Training classes. If anything, it’s been a hindrance. For example, last semester I studied baroque violin. In my first lesson, my teacher handed over his violin and bow for me to try, as I hadn’t gotten my own instrument yet. He asked me to play a movement of unaccompanied Bach, and I picked the Sarabande from the D minor Partita, which I knew well. But the experience of putting my fingers in familiar places and hearing unfamiliar sounds was so jarring that I was hardly able to get through the movement. “That’s funny,” remarked my teacher, as I finished – “you must have perfect pitch. You completely adjusted!” Without realizing it, I had changed the fingerings and patterns that were deeply imprinted in my muscle memory to “accommodate” the Baroque tuning, in order to play the notes as I heard them usually.

People ask me if it’s annoying to hear a piece in a transposed key. It’s a funny experience, but it doesn’t bug me. It’s just different, like seeing something familiar from a new angle, or looking at a famous painting re-interpreted with a different color palette.

monalisa.However, my perfect pitch may not be perfect after all. According to this study, people who claim to have perfect pitch are subject to having their “inner pitches” modified. When pitches are gradually adjusted to be sharper or flatter during the course of a piece, people with perfect pitch won’t notice, and afterwards, they will identify the new, altered pitches as being correct, and the in tune pitches to be sharp or flat.

I always thought my ability to distinguish different pitches was untouchable, but I didn’t account for variations within a pitch. The A above middle C, which is used as the standard tuning pitch, has a frequency of 440 Hz. Sometimes 441 Hz is accepted. Stereotypically, violinists like to tune sharp, making the sound brighter.

I walked into a lesson recently, and took my violin out of the case to tune. When I was satisfied, I flipped open my sheet music. But my teacher requested that I check my strings again. I did, and again thought they were fine. My teacher pulled out his phone, opened an app, and had me compare my strings to a tuner. To my horror, the A in my ear was almost 445 Hz – unacceptably high. When I used the app to find the 440, it sounded disgustingly flat to me. I found it very hard to play with my strings tuned correctly. I felt silly for letting my inner A creep up so high, and have since been checking with a tuner every day.

A couple of weeks later, I was scheduled to play in studio class, where all my teacher’s students come together to play for each other and give comments and critiques. I was playing with piano, and took an A from my accompanist, but was unable to match the pitch. For minutes I struggled with my peg, oscillating between G# and Bb, and all the tiny increments in between, but couldn’t get my string to ring with the sound of the piano. “Here, let me try,” said my teacher, taking my fiddle. I laughed along with the class – when was the last time any of our teachers tuned our violin?

It didn’t help that my strings were false and needed to be changed, but many string players struggle with tuning to an instrument that’s not also stringed – a piano, for example. Matching pitch despite the different timbres is difficult. I grinned as my teacher tuned my violin, feeling silly, but as he handed it back, he said, “There are no musicians I respect who don’t take tuning the instrument to be a very significant matter.” From now on, I won’t believe my inner pitch to be anything close to perfect.

Tangling with Aerialists

One of my favorite things in the world is to play with other musicians, especially in small ensembles. This past week, I had the chance to do a very different, and for me, very new kind of collaboration. I’ve always loved interdisciplinary projects, and had the opportunity to join forces with an aerial acrobatics company.

caeli_tangle_invert

No, I was not hanging from a trapeze. I was playing alongside the performers of Tangle Movement Arts, a Philadelphia-based aerial acrobatic theater company founded by my sister, Lauren Rile Smith. The show, titled INVERT!, took place at the Rotunda, a huge, dome-shaped former church sanctuary near the University of Pennsylvania campus.

I performed a series of brief intermezzos by Paganini, Bach, Piazzolla, Massenet, and a piece by Melissa Dunphy between daring and brilliant feminist-inspired acts on trapeze, lyra (hoop), and rope. The huge organ pipes in the background created a dramatic backdrop. In the photo below, my younger sister, Pascale Smith, also a Tangle member, performs on the trapeze while reciting a Marilyn Hacker poem. These wonderful photos are courtesy of the Philadelphia Dance Photo Project.

calla organ pipe

Juilliard Juries!

gavelA few days ago, I was power walking through the fourth-floor hallway, desperate for a practice studio. Every room seemed to be occupied — typical for a weekday morning. But this time I was feeling extra pressure. My jury was in an hour.

In music conservatories, students are required to take annual juries. We prepare a variety of prescribed repertoire – concertos, sonatas, and unaccompanied Bach – to perform before a panel of faculty. These juries are only ten or fifteen minutes long, but they’re terrifying. At Juilliard, juries are essentially graded auditions that determine whether or not we will be allowed to remain enrolled in the school. Although I’ve never heard of anyone being kicked out for a sub-par jury, it’s scary to think that it’s possible.

The job of the jury panel is to give the performer a numerical grade for creative expression and technical mastery. This quantitative expression makes the artistic experience feel contrived. It’s sort of a performance, but going into it, you know you’re going to be interrupted in the middle of the piece, and the whole time you’re playing, the panel is scratching down comments and critiques.

Jury week means a lot of stress for musicians. Every year thus far of my undergrad career, I have had a meltdown in the week prior to my jury. I somehow convince myself that I’m unable to play the violin, that my fingers and brain are inadequate, that my memory will fail me, that the hours and hours of practice that I’ve put in will not result in an acceptable performance. This year, three days before my jury, I gave a mock-performance for my sister, which ended with me lying face-down on the carpet, moaning, while she tried to pry me off the floor.

So, flash back to the other morning, while I was gobbling down bananas and trying to find a place to warm up. Outside one practice room, I heard a jazz drummer playing, and I had a funny thought.

I should preface this by saying that there is sort of an unfair stigma about jazz players at Juilliard, from the point of view of classical musicians, which is that they never practice. I’m sure this is an unmerited reputation, but it exists. In fact, while writing this, I realized that I used the word “playing” instead of the word “practicing” at the beginning of the previous paragraph, whereas if it had been a violinist or a pianist, I would without a doubt have said “practicing”. Why is it that they “play”, but we “practice”?

As I listened to this student practicing, playing, or in some way preparing for his jury, I said to myself, “God, jazz juries must be so fun, and relaxed. I mean, listen to the music they’re playing! They must be an absolute breeze, because jazz is, like, FUN.”

As soon as the thought passed through my mind, I began to laugh. I was being ridiculous for two reasons. The first reason is that I know perfectly well jazz juries are not all that easy. Apparently, the faculty puts 60 songs into a hat and draws them at random to determine what the student should play. Repertoire determined by lottery – nerve-wracking.

But secondly, how telling was it that I dismissed jazz juries as being no big deal on the premise that the music is “fun”, and meant to be enjoyed, instead of stressed over, whereas I thought of juries for classical musicians as a whole different process? Wasn’t my music “fun” – and: profound and reflective, buoyant and vivacious, and everything in between?

I had been agonizing over presenting myself to this panel of esteemed violin professors, and proving my worth to them – proving that I could play my octaves in tune, and give the nonuplets in the third movement of the Stravinsky concerto the fluid, improvisatory quality that they required.

I remembered, then, why I study music, and what the essence of this music is. All of a sudden, entering my jury seemed less like marching towards an execution, and more like a chance to show my teachers how I felt about the music and what I could do about it.

The moral to stories like this one is always the same, and it feels cliché to say it. And yet I find myself having the same realization repeatedly, usually when I’m so nervous about performing that I feel like I will explode. But it really does always come back to forgetting about yourself and your insecurities, and remembering the music and why you’re there to play. With this in my mind, an hour later I walked into the room to face the panel. I smiled, and raised my violin to play.

Blowing off steam after my jury!

Blowing off steam after a successful jury.

Bolt for a Buck

bolt-bus2

I’m a frequent rider on the Bolt Bus. For ten dollars a pop, I travel between NYC, where I go to school, and Philadelphia, the city where my family lives. I ride the Bolt Bus at least two dozen times a year, traveling for performances and holidays, but also whenever I’m desperate to get away from the pressures of school and unwind in my cozy, childhood home.

Unlike the dark, smooth ride of the Amtrak trains that run on a parallel, but far more expensive route down the northeast corridor, the Bolt Bus is unpredictable. You can trust that you’ll probably make it to New York or back within a few hours, give or take a restroom that’s filled with vomit. But you could get stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike for a couple hours. And Bolt Busses sometimes break down. You get what you pay for.

Bolt Bus drivers range in disposition from jolly and enthusiastic to grim and silent. I remember a garrulous driver who broadcast her personal philosophies on discipline and child-rearing over the loudspeaker for an hour, as well as a surly driver who demanded to know if my friend and I would be “yelling with each other the whole damn ride” because we were chatting happily in the seat behind him before the bus pulled out.

I’ve had a delightful assortment of seatmates. I’ve met fellow musicians and enjoyed inspiring conversations about art. I’ve sat next to all sorts of people who want to reminisce about growing up in Philadelphia. I’ve met bevies of college students eager to share tales of their night of mischief in the big city. Once, I played Scrabble on a laptop with a banking intern all the way to New York. Another time I sat next to a mysterious person who held a conversation beneath the privacy of his or her enormous winter parka throughout the whole ride, never coming up for air—I never even got a glimpse of my seatmate’s face.

When I don’t have a colorful neighbor to keep me company, I fall asleep. I can fall asleep very quickly, no matter where I am and how noisy it is. I sleep especially deeply on bus rides, lulled by the hum of the engine and the feel of the road. More than a few times, I’ve been poked awake by a little old lady after falling asleep on her shoulder.

On a recent trip home, I was awakened by a loud bang, certain my violin was tumbling out of the overhead compartment. My reaction to this terrifying possibility was to emit a spectacular gasp, which startled everyone around me, particularly the guy roughly my age sitting next to me. (I realized later that my fellow riders probably didn’t know I had been asleep, which would make my reaction seem quite odd.) The noise turned out to be a loose armrest falling into position. Struggling to explain myself, I babbled to my seatmate about my violin, and tried to apologize. He murmured some acknowledgement and went back to trying to beat his high score on Temple Run. About twenty minutes later he took a phone call, and told a friend in what he thought must have been a quiet voice that “the girl sitting next to me is really nutty.” I was thrilled when the bus finally pulled up beside Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, and I could escape with my violin and backpack, into the anonymous bustle of my home city.

bolt-bus1

A Gift for Map

Most of the emails that swamp my inbox daily are deleted immediately, though occasionally there is a free ticket offer or a chance to make friendship bracelets out of chocolate. (Thanks, Office of Student Affairs!) But the best news I’ve heard lately came from a Juilliard administrator. The subject, in all-caps: $5 MILLION GIFT FOR MAP.

MAP is the Music Advancement Program, the Saturday music program at Juilliard where I’ve been teaching for the last two years. MAP serves to represent the under-represented in the American classical music scene – which means most of their students are black and Hispanic, and the tuba player is a girl!

The program came close to ending in 2009, when it lost major funding. But thanks to Harriet Heyman and Michael J. Moritz, MAP, which was started in 1991 by Juilliard president Joseph Polisi, has become so much closer to becoming fully endowed.

bach-double

I’ve been coaching Claudius and Juliet in the Bach Double. Their accompanist is Hongsup Lee.

As a MAP Fellow, I work with students in chamber music and in private lessons. Herbie, my 9-year-old student from Queens, is perpetually bouncy and enthusiastic – even at the dreadful hour of 8:30, when we have our weekly lessons. Herbie is working on the second movement of the Handel violin sonata in D major, and is preparing it for a recital this month.

Herbie recently left school because, even though he had skipped two grades, the work wasn’t challenging him. On his iPad case, he has written in sharpie: “I am home-schooled, not a truant”, next to a drawing of the 1 train. He likes the subway system very much.

Caeli-and-Herbie

Me and Herbie

I invited Herbie and his mother to one of my orchestra performances at Juilliard this year (Mahler’s 1st symphony, with Edward Gardener conducting). Herbie sat on the edge of his seat throughout the concert, taking careful notes. At the end of the symphony, he leapt to his feet and clapped his hands over his head while jumping up and down. He was probably the only 9-year-old in the audience, and certainly had as much enthusiasm as the rest of the audience combined.

Students in MAP receive weekly private lessons, take theory classes, and play in an orchestra. Most of the MAP parents are very supportive, but some determined students make it there every Saturday morning without much parental involvement.

Claudius has a LOT of music to learn!

Claudius has a LOT of music to learn!

Attending a program at Juilliard is a big source of pride for the students and their families. The program has an extremely dedicated staff and faculty, and in spite of all the bleak news in classical music, it’s comforting to know this program will be educating and nurturing young musicians for years to come.
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The Music Advancement Program application for the 2013-2014 year is available online at http://www.juilliard.edu/map. The deadline is April 1st.