PLAYING A HAPPY SCALE: My Return to Heifetz International Music Festival

One summer afternoon in 2009 I was practicing in my dorm at the Heifetz International Music Institute, in a sprawling basement room where I lived with three other girls my age. I was studying Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy—a piece I found difficult, but loved very much. Something from the communication class that afternoon reverberated in my mind, and I was feeling newly free. I paced around my room while I played, exploring different sounds, colors, and possibilities of phrase structure. As I walked around, my eyes landed on a bug on the wall. I stopped for a moment to consider the bug and its existence. Suddenly, I felt a rush of emotion, a tenderness. I began to play again, this time for the bug (which probably had no idea it was the recipient of such attention). I felt the power and delight of channeling my musical energy somewhere specific, connecting to someone (well, something). Daniel Heifetz often talks about sending your energy over the footlights, all the way to the back row of the hall, so that you reach each person in the audience. Now I strive to reach each insect in the concert hall, as well.

Flash forward nine years. This summer, I am on the violin faculty for the Institute’s PEG (Program for the Exceptionally Gifted), designed for students ages 9–14. My three-week session with seven violin students is coming to a close, and I’ve been reflecting on my own studies at the Heifetz Institute. It’s a joy to take what I’ve learned and pass it on to young musicians. The students of HeifetzPEG are at a pivotal point in their musical lives, as they go through middle school. Yes—scales, etudes, and understanding of the fingerboard are important. But at Heifetz, students are working on more than that.

Back when I was a student, the Heifetz Institute was located in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, on the shore of the gorgeous Lake Winnipesaukee. In 2012, the program made a new home on the campus of Mary Baldwin College, in Staunton, VA. Staunton is a lovely historic town, with a vibrant cultural community, thanks in large part to the Institute. When I was a student at Heifetz, I thrived in an environment of talented and hardworking young musicians, whose heartfelt and evocative playing left me in awe. Since then, the program has exploded in size and scope, thanks to the continuing vision and industry of founder and Artistic Director Daniel Heifetz, and Ben and Jennifer Roe (President & CEO, and General Manager, respectively). There is so much happening here that I had to go over the faculty handbook four or five times to digest the different concerts and their functions.

During my three weeks at Heifetz this summer, I grabbed the chance to sit in on a few of the Institute’s famous communication classes, designed to help young musicians grow holistically, exploring possible modes of expression with and without their instruments. As a young, goofy kid, dancing and singing in these classes was fun, but I also remember that we all seemed self-conscious. Growing up in the highly disciplined and rigorous world of classical music can render young musicians stiff and afraid to make mistakes. Last week, communication faculty Marika Hughes, a singer, cellist, and composer based in NYC, led a class on inspiration. She asked students to consider where inspiration could be found, and whether it was even important for an artist. We were told to choose a mundane object in the room, and draw inspiration from it, performing and creating a short non-verbal, vocally lyrical and percussive piece. During the performances, Marika assigned each group a level of intensity at which to perform—level 2, level 7, level 10. Most of the students seemed shy and had a hard time fully letting go.

I created a piece with fellow PEG violin faculty Evelyn Petcher (we met 9 years ago, as fellow Heifetz students, and have arrived back, full-circle, as professional musicians and Heifetz faculty). One of the biggest musical lessons I’ve learned during the transition to an adult artist is the importance of a singular dedication to the feeling and world of the music you’re playing. It feels wonderful to become fully convinced of an idea and put it into existence all costs—even at the expense of worrying about your technique. Evelyn and I fully committed to our piece, which was inspired by a box of Kleenex. We may have made fools of ourselves, but I’d like to imagine that we were so committed to our ideas that our twenty-second-long piece was effective. Students in the room were even able to correctly guess the object of our inspiration, without any hints.

A question arose about the “level of intensity”. What exactly did it mean? The class agreed that it meant how intensely true you are—to whatever you are. Later, in a faculty meeting, Chic Street Man defined intensity as your level of “willingness to connect with your audience”. The class decided that “intensity” shouldn’t translate into a false physicality: an intensity level 10 isn’t about shouting or waving your arms. It’s about communicating even a soft idea as vividly as you can – like an ember still burning in the fireplace.

At the open and close of the summer session at Heifetz, students complete assessments of their ability to communicate emotion through music. Sitting as a faculty member on the other side of the room was both fun and bizarre. Students enter, introduce themselves, perform, and are then asked to play a happy scale— “so as to make everyone in the room feel joy”, instructs Mr. Heifetz. Most students play a loud scale with wide, intense vibrato. Afterward, Mr. Heifetz would often ask the student, “Did you feel happy when playing that?” Usually, the student would respond with a bashful smile and a shake of the head. It’s easy to confuse enthusiasm with aggression, and during their time at Heifetz, students have the chance to explore what “happy” (and other emotions) can truly mean, feel, and sound like.

One child apparently hadn’t been warned about the assessment, and as such came without a preconceived notion of what a “happy scale” could be. After looking up thoughtfully for a moment, she presented us with a light, graceful scale, using dotted rhythms and a creative bowing pattern. Her sincerity and creativity made me smile. As she walked off stage, I began to wonder, how many kinds of happy are there?

Three weeks felt short with these wonderful students, but PEG is a potent environment for growth, with twice-weekly lessons, daily help from practice buddies, chamber music coachings, master classes, studio classes, and the invaluable opportunity for them attend concerts of the students and world-class faculty of the regular Heifetz program.

At PEG’s opening orientation on June 24, each faculty member was asked to give a few words of advice. I had two main points for them: “Grab every opportunity that presents itself’—because, at a place like Heifetz, opportunities are available at every turn. I also told them that I believe life’s greatest joy is making music with other people. My fondest memories are of my first summers away at music camp, when I was 11 and 12, the same age as most of my PEG students. This sentiment doesn’t need underscoring, because each young musician will experience this magic in his or her own way. But this age, of discovery and newness, is unlike others, and at Heifetz, these students have a chance to grow in all parts of themselves.

Related: Read my 2009 blog about being a student at the Heifetz Festival.

This essay first appeared on Violinist.com.

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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.

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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!]

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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.

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