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.