AMN mentors Vocal and Choral Music Workshops

Meet Vocal Mentor Candace Johnson

“Multifaceted” is an understated—and inadequate—word to describe our June 19 online workshop mentor, Candace Johnson. An acclaimed lyric coloratura who has sung the lead roles in “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Suor Angelica,” and other works, she also teaches applied voice and musicology at UC Berkeley; wrote and performed a one-woman show, “VOX in a BOX,” that fuses her classical training with her Black musical heritage; and created “CJ’s FitnesSing!”, which combines vocal exercises with physical training. In our workshop, Candace will share her deep knowledge of Negro spirituals and invite us to sing them together. The timing is auspicious: June is African American Music Appreciation Month, and June 19 is Juneteenth—the holiday that celebrates the June 19, 1865, announcement in Galveston, Texas, of the end of slavery, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. We reached Candace at her Bay Area home to learn more about her many musical interests and projects.

When did you become interested in music? Did your family encourage you?

I grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, the youngest of six children. Everyone in my family sang well—my mother had a sweet, bright voice, and my father had a nice baritone. I began taking piano lessons in third grade, which was late compared to my peers. My friends had this regimen, and I wanted to be part of it! I started playing classically, but my mother felt it was important to also have the experience of learning to play by ear, which is part of the Black musical tradition. My first teacher taught me some common church improvisations—how to look at a piece of music and play block chords with a ragtime bass. That skill has greatly served me as a singer and a teacher. If you understand a piece’s harmonic underpinnings, it enhances your understanding of how the vocal line is married to that harmonic flow.

My second piano teacher had both classical and Black church experience. He taught me to take a Rachmaninoff arpeggio and stick it in a piece of church music. It was phenomenal training, and I stress it to my students now. They need to know that all forms of music are valid—that the things they’ve been hearing all their lives, whether it’s country or gospel or classical Indian music, are just as valid as what the academy calls “legitimate.”

When did singing enter the picture?

I began singing in our church choir when I was about 7, and very quickly started doing solos. I traveled around the state, singing in churches and participating in telethons and singing competitions, including ACT-SO [Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics], a national competition sponsored by the NAACP. Through that experience, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. William Garcia, a former voice teacher at Lane College, a historically Black college in my hometown. He exposed me to bel canto and the Western European tradition, and he’s the reason I was able to be admitted to an excellent collegiate music program. My parents came from blue-collar backgrounds and hadn’t gone to college, nor had many others in my extended family. I had my sights set on Vanderbilt University, but a guidance counselor—an African American woman!—told me I wouldn’t get in. Dr. Garcia prepared me for the audition, and I got in.

What led you to start FitnesSing! in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic?

I’d had the idea for several years: Why not combine my two passions, fitness and singing? I’d taken dance lessons in junior high and high school, and after I graduated from college I became Miss Black Tennessee and did a lot of weight training and conditioning. It fueled something in me, but then I got married, had two children, and gained weight. It was when we moved to New York for a sabbatical and I started taking a class at 24 Hour Fitness in Midtown that I reconnected with movement. When we returned to California I immediately found a gym. It all started to come back!

FitnesSing! became a reality through Stephanie Weisman, the artistic director at The Marsh, which has performance spaces in San Francisco and Berkeley. We’d met in 2019, when I did “VOX in a BOX,” my one-woman show at The Marsh. When the pandemic began, I told her I was frustrated—I had all these ideas but nowhere to put them. Stephanie had just started Marsh Stream, an online platform, and she invited me to bring FitnesSing! there. It’s been wonderful—I have people who’ve been with me since we started. They come for the singing, for tidbits about building a healthy voice, for movement, and for community.

[Start moving with FitnesSing!]

Could you give us a little background about spirituals, to prepare us for the workshop?

From the standpoint of musical structure, the spiritual is a folk music. The melodies are very singable, and the form is strophic: an A part and a B part, very hymnlike in structure. But just because it’s accessible doesn’t mean the spiritual isn’t complex.

The spiritual was born out of enslaved Africans’ experience: acquiring some English language, living under treacherous conditions, using vocal calling as a way of expressing emotions. This is therapy. But spirituals also have a functional value: Look at the coded language in “Wade in the Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd.” The only way we’re going to get to the Underground Railroad is to go in the river so the bloodhounds won’t catch us. To follow the Big Dipper in the sky.

There are healing properties in the melody and in the communal singing—especially for me, as an African American singer and a person who specializes in spirituals, but also for all of us.

Any post-pandemic plans you’d like to share?

This Amateur Music Network workshop is the genesis of something I’d like to roll out this summer and fall. I call it the American Restoration Mass Choir, and it would include singers of all races and backgrounds. My vision is to have local chapters throughout the country. The repertoire would center Negro spirituals, and rehearsals would encourage safe cross-cultural dialogue. Once a year we get together for a concert, and we center the spirituals. We’d be doing racial reparations through music.

AMN mentors Percussion Workshops

Meet Samba Percussionist Ami Molinelli

Are you ready for some rhythm? Our June 12 online workshop, Samba Syncopation, features guitarist Edinho Gerber and percussionist Ami Molinelli, who’ll share their insights into Brazilian music’s complex, infectious beats. We asked Ami—a respected educator as well as a performer—to give us a preview of what is sure to be an exciting hour.

You’re a San Francisco Bay Area native. What drew you to Brazilian percussion?

I grew up in Burlingame in a not-especially-musical family. My father played the accordion—he was semi-forced to, being of Italian descent—and that’s my earliest musical memory. My mother rented a piano for all of us to play, and it stuck with me. I took piano lessons until high school, when I quit. At UC Berkeley, I took a steel-drum ensemble class and an African drumming class, and that’s when I fell in love with percussion. 

For workshop participants who may be new to Brazilian music, how would you describe samba? How does it differ from other Brazilian musical styles such as bossa nova or choro?

Brazil’s earliest music is choro. Urban samba, which is both a dance and a musical style, evolved in Rio de Janeiro in parallel with choro in the early 20th century. It derived from samba de roda—roda means “circle” in Portuguese—which originated in Bahia, in the northeast, and ultimately from West Africa.

Brazilian samba is written in 2/4 time signature. The constant 16th-note motion that you hear in a shaker with the big bass drum, the surdo, emphasizes beat 2: It’s the heartbeat of a basic samba. The melodies are a mix of African, Indigenous, and European, often in call-and-response form. The widely known bossa nova is a variation of samba.

The original melody of “Girl from Ipanema,” by Tom Jobim, is very syncopated. One of my teachers, Jovino Santos Neto, once said in a lecture that the Portuguese lyrics to “Girl from Ipanema” have that syncopation while the English lyrics are all eighth notes and don’t reference the melody of the song!

In non-pandemic years, the last weekend of May is when San Francisco holds its Carnaval. How did you mark the occasion this year?

We had a very successful virtual Carnaval! Musicians from all over—the Bay Area, Santa Barbara, Chicago, Brazil—got together to present “Raizes do Choro e Samba” (Roots of Choro and Samba). It was a free online event in partnership with Red Poppy Art House, a small art gallery and music venue in San Francisco’s Mission District. 

What else have you been doing, musically, during the last 15 months of pandemic restrictions? 

I was very fortunate to receive a San Francisco Arts Commission grant to produce a live performance, Historia do Choro, which I’ve turned into a virtual presentation. I’m also promoting the Historia do Choro album. I’ve been recording from my home studio, and I did a couple of livestreams. Just last month I did my first few in-person gigs—at Rocky’s Market in Oakland, as part of their weekly music series, and at the Healdsburg Hotel. It’s been really lovely to be out again!

Watch the preview of the May 29 virtual Carnaval event, “Raizes do Choro e Samba”:

Watch the full video of the event.

AMN mentors Woodwinds Workshops

Meet Clarinet Mentor Jerry Simas

On May 15, we’ll welcome back to Amateur Music Network Jerry Simas, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music professor and San Francisco Symphony clarinetist, to teach a online master class on Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto—one of the most played, and most beloved, pieces in the wind repertoire. We reached Jerry at his San Francisco home to chat about what makes this concerto so richly rewarding. And we asked him about his musical life since March 2020, when he contributed an early-pandemic guest post to our blog.

Last March you wrote: “During this time of uncertainty, let music be your go-to place. Make music if it means singing your own tunes, producing your creations on your computer, or fumbling your way on a dusty old accordion or ukulele.” Have you been able to follow your own advice?

Yes and no. I go through incredible bursts of creativity where I’m practicing a lot. We’ve had online opportunities—master classes, ensemble mashups. But I’ve realized how much of what I do involves making or teaching music with other people, in person. We all miss that! In the meantime, I’ve been serving on several San Francisco Symphony DEI [diversity, equity, inclusion] committees, and doing a lot of reading about anti-racism such as Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist.

Is there any non-virtual performing in your future?

Yes! In May and June the symphony will do some indoor concerts at Davies Symphony Hall with restricted audience sizes. [Check the calendar for updates.] These concerts will initially be with strings and percussion only, but I’m optimistic that winds and brass will be added to the mix for outdoor summer concerts. I’m super-excited about that.

So are we! We’re looking forward to your May 15 master class, too. Tell us a little about your history with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

When I was 14 or 15 and playing in the Sacramento Youth Symphony, I received a recording of the concerto with Robert Marcellus and the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by George Szell. It was revelatory. It’s one of the first pieces every serious clarinet player tackles. It’s often used as an audition piece for players of all levels and backgrounds—for youth orchestras, honor bands, and certainly every professional audition. It’s a piece with many different traditions and ways to interpret.

How will you approach this online master class?

It will be run like a traditional master class. I’ll talk about the concerto and about my own evolution with it—from youth orchestra to hearing great recordings to conservatory level to the professional audition circuit to performances with orchestra, and now teaching it.

I’ve invited three serious amateur or semi-professional performers to join me from their remote locations. For all of them, music is part of their identity, but they do other things professionally—one is a middle-school teacher, one is a fitness instructor and book editor, one is a lawyer. Each one will perform a segment of their assigned movement.

What can our amateur participants expect to gain from the workshop?

The great thing about these workshops is that they’re available to people in a wide cross-section of experience and ability. Everyone can try new techniques without the pressure of having to perform.

With Mozart, we tend to get stuck on the “rules” of rhythm, intonation, and beautiful sound. Good musicianship is important, of course, but I want to take it to a higher artistic level. How can we keep this classical standard fresh and alive? That’s what’s important to me.

AMN mentors Chamber Music Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Workshops

Meet Conductor and Music Director Ben Simon

Calling all string players! Our May 8 workshop, At Home with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, is designed to inspire you and boost your playing to a new level. SFCO calls itself “San Francisco’s friendliest ensemble,” and good-humored conductor Ben Simon sets the tone. We talked with Ben recently about his life as a violinist turned violist, about why he switched to conducting (“the dark side,” he joked), and what we can expect from the May 8 workshop. 

Tell us about your musical beginnings. When did you first pick up an instrument?

My mother had been a cellist and pianist who quit music in high school to spite her mother, and regretted it later. She was determined that all four of her children would have music in their lives. And we do! My brother’s a percussionist, one sister plays flute, and my other sister plays the cello. But I’m the only one who became a professional musician. I began taking violin lessons when I was 6.

When did you switch from violin to viola?

I spent my first eight years in San Francisco, and my first violin teacher—Manfred Karasik, who played with the San Francisco Symphony—was actually a violist. We used to play Béla Bartók duos together. My family moved to New York, and I continued to study violin there. We returned to the Bay Area when I was 15, and when I left again, to attend Yale, Karasik gave me a viola and said, “This might come in handy.”

And did it?

It did, but not at first. I was pre-med at Yale, with no intention of becoming a musician. But I missed the violin so much that I dropped my pre-med studies and became a music major. During my second year, the Yale School of Music hired Raphael Hillyer, a brilliant violist who’d been the Juilliard String Quartet’s original violist. I was very lucky: He took me on as a student—it was a turning point in my musical life.

While I was still in school I auditioned for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, which used students as well as professional musicians. There were a lot more violinists than violists, and the conductor asked whether any violinists played viola. In my youth and inexperience I said yes. I got the job as a violist, and I’ve never looked back.

What appeals to you about the viola?

Many composers have called the viola the intellectual voice of a string quartet. You’re playing the inner lines that control the rhythm and harmony. Also, the sound is richer and more mellow than the violin, and you don’t have to worry about that pesky E-string. It suits my personality really well.

How about conducting? Does it also suit your personality?

I’ve always been interested in score-reading and analysis. I had studied conducting since high school and had conducted a few little things here and there. Then, in my mid-40s, I became the director of The Crowden School in Berkeley—I succeeded Ann Crowden, the founder. The best part was getting to conduct the school’s orchestra. It was my first time conducting since college, and I loved it! In 2002 I was offered two jobs: as music director of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, a fabulous strings-only youth orchestra; and as the conductor of the professional San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. I’m more of a mentor and coach than a boss—we’re all friends. I make the process as collaborative as possible.

And have you continued to play the viola?

I practice every day, and I play with friends and colleagues when I can.

We’re thrilled that the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra will play for us in the May 8 workshop. Will you be performing together or in separate Zoom rooms?

We’ll be together, live, at the composer Paul Dresher’s studio in West Oakland. It’s an industrial warehouse with some renovations that make it sound better, and with wonderful theatrical lighting. We’ll run through the Praelude of Grieg’s Holberg Suite together, and then the section leaders will talk about the musical challenges of each individual part. At the end, we’ll go back to the top and do a little performance together. It’s a brilliant movement, and everyone gets a chance to shine.

You’ve played in orchestras and string quartets. What’s the main difference?

Playing in orchestras is a good way to make a living and a terrible way to make music. Playing in string quartets is the opposite: a great way to make music—it’s a collaborative effort—but a very difficult way to make a living!

AMN mentors Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Workshops

Meet Violinist and Educator Dr. Lynn Kuo

What’s the secret to making music fearlessly and joyfully? In our April 24th online workshop, Dr. Lynn Kuo—assistant concertmaster of the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra and founder of Violin with Dr. Lynn —will talk about what it means to be a “Musical Ninja”: how to harness harmony as your secret weapon in order to develop musicality. 

We reached Lynn at her family home in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, where she returned as a professor in early 2020 and where she is currently staying during the pandemic-forced cancellation of the National Ballet of Canada season and of her freelance work in Toronto.

You came to the violin relatively late, didn’t you?

Yes, my first instrument was the piano, which I began playing at age 7. At the time, my family lived in the small town of Stephenville, Newfoundland and Labrador, which had formerly been home to a U.S. Air Force base. I began taking violin lessons later, when I was 9, from a local fiddler. I started formal Suzuki method training when my family moved to St. John’s [the provincial capital]. Most Suzuki students start much younger, at 3 or 4. When I started violin, I could already read music, because I’d had two years of piano training. 

I continued both my piano and violin studies until I was 17.  I then entered into my bachelor of music degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland. All first-year music students were required to participate in choir, and I fulfilled the requirement by accompanying the choir on the piano, even though I was a violin major!

You’ve been in the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra for more than 20 years. How did you get the job? Were you especially interested in ballet?

I went in completely inexperienced! I had never even seen a ballet when I auditioned for the orchestra. I was still in school, in the second year of my master’s degree at the University of Toronto. I was aiming to win a section violin position in the orchestra, and I used the assistant concertmaster audition the week before as a dress rehearsal for the section violin audition. For my own selection piece, I chose to play the Bach Chaconne. What was I thinking? To my surprise, I won the assistant concertmaster audition! 

Lynn with her 20-year anniversary pin from the National Ballet of Canada.

How is playing in a ballet orchestra different from playing in a symphony orchestra?

In a pit orchestra, it’s imperative to keep your eyes on the conductor at the end of every number. Unlike symphonies, operas and ballets require the conductor to coordinate very tightly with performers onstage. Ballet dancers need very specific tempi and musical flexibility. The conductor watches for what the dancers need onstage: do they need a little extra time to finish a lift? Did the dancer land earlier than usual? 

In traditional ballet repertoire, which can be extremely tightly choreographed to the music, experienced pit musicians will know to watch the conductor very closely at final cadences. Otherwise, it’s tempting to go on autopilot and end up playing in an empty hole in the music, when the conductor is pausing to coordinate the music with a final movement onstage. More-contemporary ballets may not be so tightly choreographed to the music in this way. As you gain experience, pit musicians will know when it’s important to stay particularly alert on the job.

Do you have a favorite ballet?

Yes! I love Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. 

You also practice karate and you’re a salsa dancer! How do those activities mesh with your musical life?

I started martial arts in 2017. I was never really a sporty or athletic person, and I only started exercising as a young adult. After years of fitness classes, I found myself tagging along with a friend to a karate class at a dojo. Initially, I felt out of my element and overwhelmed, but I found myself returning for the next class. After all, they had given me a free gi and white belt! I never stopped going—we’ve been training online during the pandemic—and it’s now been three and a half years.

My dojo has a lot of musicians and dancers, and we’re all very respectful of each other. The other students know I need to protect my hands! Martial arts training is not about punching and kicking; it’s about cultivating respect, discipline, courage, and perseverance. I love the training because it instills these values, which I also bring to my teaching as a violin educator.

Eight months after starting karate, I walked into the salsa studio next door, and I became a beginner salsa dancer.

That sounds brave!

My motto is “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” It’s the title of a book by Dr. Susan Jeffers that peak performance psychologist Dr. Don Greene assigned me to read. “Feel the fear and do it anyway” has helped me approach the violin—and life—with a sense of fearlessness. I apply it to performing, in the dojo during a belt exam, in dance class when I’m learning a new step. It also helped when I returned to St. John’s last year to become a first-time professor. As a full-time orchestral musician, I was accustomed to being obscured in a pit or in a sea of other orchestral musicians onstage. All of a sudden, I was standing in front of university violin students looking to me for direction. 

I also took this mentality while pivoting again during the pandemic. After my teaching contract ended, I ventured again into the unknown and turned myself into an online educator and entrepreneur. I now teach violinists exclusively online, and I’ll be leading my third Violin Bootcamp for advanced violinists between July 5 and August 28, 2021.