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.

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.

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.


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.


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.
The Music Advancement Program application for the 2013-2014 year is available online at The deadline is April 1st.

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