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.

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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

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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

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

Audition Recording Tips

Mark Gasser

Mark Gasser (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That time of year has come and gone again – the dreary month of January, when you’re suffering from frozen fingers and the post-holiday blues, and all the while facing three more months of winter. Luckily for us musicians, this is also when we get to partake in our most beloved pastime: recording for summer festivals! Nothing cheers you up quite like the agonizing hours spent in front of that mean, little recorder and the joy of picking your least horrible take to submit.

Even though we’re all nearly done with our summer recordings, I think we’re still fresh from the trauma. So here is a list of recording tips from yours truly, to think about for next time!

EAT – but not just anything! We’ve all heard about how important it is to eat a balanced breakfast before taking the SAT. The same goes for recording: we need our bodies and brains to be fueled to work properly! Duh – but the tricky part is figuring out what exactly to eat. Before a recording session last year, I enjoyed a delicious bowl of gazpacho, my favorite cold soup (I really like cold soups…) But although it was refreshing and veggielicious, I believe the lack of carbs and protein were a hindrance to my recording session. I felt a lot slower than usual. Now I’m sure to scarf down something more substantial, not too mention SUGARY, for that extra oomph! (I recommend Trader Joe’s Molasses cookies.)

Book a space well ahead of time. Usually I am able to snag an empty dance studio at Juilliard to record (these make for good recording spaces because of their high ceilings and acceptable acoustics). This year, I casually waltzed into a room that I hadn’t booked – and was promptly interrupted right before my first note, by someone who actually had a reason to use the room (oddly, it was a drama student who needed to practice the trumpet!) I was lucky enough to be able to record in a church without previously reserving it. But book ahead, or you’ll end up dropping your recorder in the toilet while recording in your bathroom.

Perform, don’t just record. One of the worst parts of recording for me is the fact that there aren’t any real people to play for, just a little blinking red dot, taunting you, daring you to mess up. The recorder isn’t such a great audience. If you can, grab a friend and ask them to listen. It adds a more human element to the session. I asked the kindly security guard who opened the chapel for me if he’d listen to my Bach – “It’s so much easier to play for a real person!” He indulged me, and even though he was a complete stranger, having someone in the room to play for made all the difference.

Don’t set unrealistic standards. This is why I always prefer live auditions to recording – you play, you leave. But when you record, you theoretically have an unlimited amount of chances to get it just right, which puts the pressure on like nothing else. Give everything at least three takes. If it’s not perfect, don’t worry about it. In three takes, you’ll have captured your best playing that day, which is all you can ask for.

Stretch it out. On that note, give yourself plenty of time to be happy with your product. If you have lots of different rep to record, consider spreading your recording session over a few days, so you can focus on each piece more intensely on that given day.

Happy recording (if such a thing is possible!)

~ Caeli

Rayos de Canción

This article first appeared in Symphony NowJune 22, 2012

Catie with violaForty young faces looked up expectantly. “Repeat after me,” I said, then paused for the translator.

Flor blanca y flor azul,” I sang, in a loud, clear voice.

The children looked bewildered. A few ventured the first syllables, and then their efforts died out.

I tried again, slower this time. Still, the sound was small and the voices unsure. They seemed to have no grasp of pitch or rhythm. This was not how I pictured our first lesson with the middle-school children of the town Santa Catarina Bobadilla, near the city of Antigua in Guatemala. I felt myself fighting back panic, and looked to my fellow team members for support.

The four of us were part of Rayos de Canción (Rays of Song), a group of eight Juilliard students—musicians, dancers, and actors—who travel to Guatemala each spring to do performing arts outreach. Last year we had spent all of our time at a hospital for children and adults with cerebral palsy. This year, we would expand our mission to work with Common Hope, a Minnesota-based non-profit that promotes family development in Guatemala. Most of their volunteer programs are literacy-based; we would be their first performing-arts group. We had planned a week-long music, theater, and dance residency for nine- to twelve-year-olds at a local public school where the children had no prior exposure to fine arts.

During our months of preparation, we had endless planning meetings. The other musicians and I—violist Caterina Longhi, flutist Matt Wright, and percussionist Ian Sullivan—translated traditional old English folk songs into Spanish, and crammed our suitcases with dozens of tambourines, rhythm sticks, and egg shakers. Our idea was to teach them to sing in simple harmony, using vocal rounds. I worked out detailed lesson outlines for every music class, scheduled down to the very minute. But our first class had hardly begun, and the kids were growing restless. Clearly we were going to have to improvise.

HarmonyAfter a few moments of chaos, Ian decided to try something bold. He walked to the front of the room in silence, and held up his hands, his palms face down, and fingertips touching. The absence of verbal instruction, combined with his serious expression, provoked a change in the atmosphere: the kids grew quiet, and a look of concentration swept across their faces.

Ian motioned for the kids to copy his gesture. He sang the words again, using a simplified version of the hand signs developed by composer Zoltán Kodály in the 20th century. The placement of his hands in relation to each other served as a visual aid for the pitches. Because the song we were teaching was mostly stepwise, the hand signs were useful for demonstrating the movement of the pitches: up a step, down a step. He went through the first line of the song, literally one note at a time, adding one new note after several repetitions.

TambourinesThe kids were starting to catch on, and I saw their faces light up as they made the connection between the movement of their hands and their voices. Without saying a word, Ian had effectively taught the entire class the first line of the song, using the hand motions, in about ten minutes.

I asked our translator, Julianne, an American from Common Hope who had been living in Guatemala for almost a year and working as a homework tutor for students like ours, if she had any advice for us. “These kids are really used to chaos,” she said. “There’s not a lot of structure or discipline in their classroom. Don’t worry about giving them a lot of instruction – just do. The more you can be interactive and involved physically with them, the better.”

Although her advice seems obvious in retrospect, it was an epiphany for me in the moment. Growing up, my experience as a member of children’s choirs and orchestras involved formal, rule-bound codes of behavior. Now I teach in the Music Advancement Program at Juilliard—a Saturday instrumental instruction program for underrepresented and minority students—and I’m used to teaching children with similar ingrained understandings.

I had expected the Guatemalan students to be able to parrot the music back to me, which would have required them to have a set of skills that I took for granted because of my own privileged musical background. But these children seemed unfamiliar with even the simple joy of group singing. Although we had done so much research and preparation, we still hadn’t seen past our cultural assumptions.

Revising our expectations on the fly, we decided it was no longer a goal to prepare a flawless performance. The process would be more important than the product, and we would make it fun. We decided to focus on teaching them only one song instead of three. We broke our lessons down into simpler steps.

RecessOn the second day, we introduced the students to the instruments we’d brought them. They were incredibly excited. We decided to let each choose his or her own instrument, and we divided them into groups. Our original plan had been to teach patterns that they would play against each other, using syncopation and dotted rhythms. We instantly realized that this approach, like our first attempt at teaching singing, would be a disaster. Our new strategy was to clap short rhythms and have all the students repeat them in unison on their instruments. The kids loved it. We also worked with them on the idea of dynamics. We “conducted” the group, encouraging them to play as softly, and then as loudly, as they could (which resulted in a couple of broken rhythm sticks!).

By the end of the week, the children performed their round, accompanied by their hand gestures, for the rest of the school. They sang loudly and with great gusto, if not always perfectly on pitch. After the performance of their rhythm instruments, they broke into clapping and hollering that was even more deafening than the sound of 90 tambourines. The four of us have performed many times in Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall, but we’d never heard more excited applause.

~ Caeli

College & Precollege

This article first appeared in The Juilliard Admissions BlogOctober 11, 2010

During my last two years of high school, I was a student in Juilliard’s Pre-College Program, which meant, among other things, getting up at 6 AM every Saturday morning to travel to 65th and Broadway from my hometown, Philadelphia. Despite the early mornings and the four hours spent on the New Jersey Turnpike each week, I absolutely loved Pre-College. I adored my teachers and made tons of new friends that shared my passion for music – and getting to spend part of my weekend in New York City wasn’t bad either. Like many of the other seniors in my Pre-College class, I hoped to be accepted to the college division and continue my studies at Juilliard.

We never saw much of the college students during our invasion on Saturdays. In fact, I’d been told more than once that they avoided the music building like the plague on that particular day of the week (which, only one month into my first year, I already understand completely). The college students always seemed to hold a certain mystique for me – how glamorous and exciting it must be to live right on Lincoln Center, and perform as a member of the Juilliard Orchestra on stages such as Avery Fisher Hall (and even Carnegie Hall!) I looked up to these alluring, accomplished individuals and hoped to become one myself. Even though I came to the school every week, I had a feeling that being in the college was a completely different experience. And I was completely right.

My first days as a college student at Juilliard were formidable, but once I settled in and made some new friends, I felt right at home. Getting to know the other students in the dorm was one of the best parts of orientation – now my friends included not only musicians, but dancers and actors as well! My roommate and I (we live the 23rd floor of the residence building – with a great view!) bonded quickly and have a ton of fun with the other girls in our suite. But my fabulous colleagues are only one part of what makes Juilliard so great. As part of the Juilliard Orchestra, we have the opportunity to work with incredible guest conductors such as James Levine and Alan Gilbert (I’ll be playing Mahler’s 9th symphony under him next spring). Later this month, students from the Sydney Conservatorium will unite with students from Juilliard for a special joint performance in Alice Tully Hall.

As for location, you couldn’t ask for a better place to live as a young, developing artist – we’re surrounded by the New York City Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic – and it’s easy to get cheap, student rush tickets to incredible performances. And there are, of course, tons of other perks to living in Lincoln Center – within my first month, I’ve already gotten to see models strutting around during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, and caught glimpses of Blake Lively and Leighton Meester while Gossip Girl was being filmed outside of the Met, right next door!

My perspective of Juilliard has completely changed as a college student. The offices, hallways, and classrooms that I hadn’t used or known about at Pre-College had before seemed daunting and scary. But I quickly realized that the entire administration is made of friendly, helpful people, and that fellow students are exactly the kind of people that I always wanted to be around in college – wonderful, talented individuals who are wholly passionate about their art.

I know there are many Pre-College students in their senior year of high school who are interested in applying to Juilliard, and I couldn’t encourage you enough. However much you may love Juilliard now, it won’t compare to your experiences as a college student. Now that I’m here as one of them, I can’t imagine myself in a better place – and I couldn’t be happier!