Quality Musicians

I recently had occasion to visit my friend Stephen Campbell, professor of trumpet at Ball State University, and I noticed a great list he had created and posted on his door, which I share with you now:

Quality Musicians…

  1. understand where and how they fit in the musical fabric at all times.
  2. do what they can to make their work effective “in the hall.”
  3. realize that playing in a large ensemble demands even more clarity than performing with a smaller group.
  4. pace themselves during rehearsals and performances.
  5. remember that higher notes sound louder than lower notes. Longer notes also sound louder than shorter notes.
  6. don’t blast away in loud tutti passages, leaving themselves overly tired for solos or exposed passages.
  7. know to play softer and less aggressively in unison sections.
  8. play their best, regardless of who is on the podium.
  9. do not play as loudly as possible, even when the conductor asks for the same.
  10. are not defensive about suggestions from colleagues or the podium.
  11. do not take up valuable rehearsal time asking dumb questions.
  12. who are section leaders will be more effective with consistent playing rather than a lot of talking and gesturing.
  13. are always supportive and considerate of their colleagues.
  14. who are section players are more “chameleon-like” so as to be in a better position to follow the principal player and create a unified section.
  15. realize they may be “the problem.”
  16. always come to the first rehearsal prepared.
  17. are not born. We become quality musicians only through experience, honing our skills and instincts, and constantly listening.


In about a month I’ll return to the Pierre Monteux School once again as Composer-in-Residence. Two projects are on the docket: a performance of my trio and the premiere of a new kids piece Carnival of the Animals: Maine Edition.

It’s a region-specific version of the old classic, so you’ve got movements like The Puffin, The Lobster, The Porcupine, The Eagle, etc.  In a nod to Saint-Saëns cheeky inclusion of “Pianists” in the original, I’ve included “Conductors” in my set.

Which brings me to my poem, which I’d really like you to read, because I am inordinately proud of it:


Now we behold a rare sort of bird,
As odd as a duck and twice as absurd.
It thinks itself graceful, as smooth as a swan,
Look there in its wing: it holds a baton.

But unlike most others, this bird doesn’t sing,
It stands at the front and starts flapping its wing.
And lo and behold, musicians will play,
The Conductor will help them together to stay.

Conductor 1 starts full string section.

But observing this species while out in the field,
Some musicians will think that they’d rather not yield.
“A conductor direct me? What does she know?
Her style’s not learnèd and her tempo’s too slow!”

Conductor 2 starts inner circle strings; same music, half-step lower, faster tempo, senza vibrato. (Other strings stay with Conductor 1.)

But for others such methods are stuffy and prim;
Study and practice can strike them as grim.
“Students are eager, and they’ll think I’m cool.
Teaching’s the game – I’ll conduct in a school!”

Conductor 3 starts woodwinds; half-step higher, slower tempo, beginning band style (Orchestras 1 & 2 continue apace.)

Some others will think “I make a great host,
So I’ll give the crowds what they all want most.
Arrangements of rock, pop, and jazz – that’s my game;
There’s no way in the world that those could be lame!”

Conductor 4 starts brass; pops style. (Others continue as before.)

Then there are those who will spurn with derision
All music from the past, as lacking in vision.
“I’ll serve up the sounds that are loved by the few,
Bleak and discordant and aggressively new!”

Conductor 5 starts piano & percussion; high modernist style. (All others continue.)

What a mess, what a noise these birds have let loose!
I can’t take any more of this aural abuse!
There’s only one thing to do: I myself will try it
In the hopes of getting some peace and some quiet!

Narrator gives voracious cut-off. Musicians stop, conductors keep conducting.

Well there they go on, flapping their wings;
Thinking they rule over woodwinds and strings.
But musicians, I find, are always best led
By leaders who don’t let it go to their head.

Conductors realize; begin shouting at each other. Narrator cues a big unison ‘button’ to end the piece.

An experiment

I’ve just recorded a new little pièce d’occasion of mine, titled Dans les champs de Valensole, and in order to present it to the world, I’ve made two videos and uploaded them both to YouTube. The question is: which will the algorithm find more enticing?

The first one features me and Kevin performing “live” and featuring beautiful shots of the lavender fields of southern France:

The second features the rolling score:

I’ve posted them both in various places just to get the ball rolling. My mother thinks its insane that anyone would prefer to watch the score video, but I think she underestimates the popularity of the medium, or the number of classical music nerds who sit around and watch this kind of stuff all day.

I particularly wonder which cellists will prefer – to see the player in action, or to see what it is that he’s actually playing.

Only time will tell. I’ll share the results in a couple of months.

Of Danes and Strings

I finally got to hear / see the Danish String Quartet live a couple weeks ago. They played Beethoven and Bartok, music which they play very well, but I wouldn’t care if I heard them play the canon ever again. The deep spiritual core of the DSQ’s repertoire is their set of Scandinavian folk music arrangements.

How to describe these pieces? They are fiddle tunes that would sound familiar to anyone with an interest in Scottish reels or American bluegrass. They are fashioned into forms full of variety, spontaneity, and verve that function, emotionally and intellectually, as real pieces of music.

The style of the arrangements draws from the Italian baroque, French impressionism, modern pop and film score music, contemporary indie rock, and old fashioned jug band music. It’s hard even to parse the influences because they are blended so seamlessly into a coherent style, which, were I to hazard a name for it, I would call Cosmopolitan String Folk. (This would be a great name for the group itself if they ever decided to ditch the whole Danish thing.)

The music is arranged by the members of the quartet themselves, and as far as I’m concerned, that makes these gentlemen the leading composer-performers of the current generation. They perform with finesse and subtlety, both live and in person. They’ve got enough twang to make you feel country, and enough polish to make you feel urbane.

It’s hard for me to express how much I love this music, but here’s a go at it: the Danish Quartet’s Scandinavian folk arrangements are my platonic ideal of what new concert music should be. It’s music that is deeply connected to an ancient tradition, and that draws from the best styles and tools available from the history of music. The textures spring forth from the instruments themselves, and the music has been crafted by the hands of the performers.

I know the DSQ will continue to play Beethoven and Adès and Haydn, but if they ever give it up and just play full shows of the Scandinavian folk music, I’ll be first in line to buy a ticket.

Their albums in full on Spotify: Wood Works, Last Leaf

New bébé

I’m so pleased to present one of my latest pieces, a sonatina for clarinet and piano. I decided to make one of those YouTube score videos since those are all the rage these days (at least among me)

This was a case of writing something for a specific performer, a young clarinetist named Joseph Folwick, who played in the Metropolitan Youth Symphony during my year-long stint as conductor. Joseph was a technical wiz on the instrument, but more than that, his playing was full of a puckish vitality that I’ve rarely encountered. When he had a solo, he would interpolate licks from other pieces (“Rhapsody in Blue” during the “Cuban Overture” for example.)

He was always pushing the limits, trying to see how far he could go to make me laugh before I actually got pissed off. Even when we played my own music (the Mulligan Overture), he would play his part in different octaves and add freewheeling glissandi to the printed part. Rather than getting annoyed by his shenanigans, I changed the score to match his improvisations.

So I was looking out for an excuse to write a piece for him, and the opportunity came to perform at a New Year’s Eve concert here in Portland on December 31, 2017. The sonatina is in three short sections connected into a single movement, lasting about 12 minutes. It’s in turn zany, sultry, soulful, and jocular. He complained (and continues to complain) that the licks were too hard (“impossible!”), and then proceeded to play them perfectly, as you shall hear.

It was a blast to write and perform, as I hope it is to listen to.