Chamber Music Community Talking about Music

Music for the Love of It

Below is a guest contribution by violinist Joel Epstein, author of the new book Music for the Love of It: Episodes in Amateur Music-Making

The illustration above is a cartoon by James Gilray from the late 18th century called “A Little Music, or the Delights of Harmony.” It illustrates one of the recurring themes of the bookthat, while in society women may have been subordinate, in the music salon they were more than equals.

As an amateur violinist, I feel—and, I think, most of us feel—that I am carrying on a great tradition reaching back hundreds of years. A few things inspired me to explore that tradition, an exploration which eventually culminated in my book Music for the Love of It: Episodes in Amateur Music-Making.

The first thing that tickled my interest was the dedication on the title page of the Brahms string quartets opus 51: “To Theodor Billroth.” The name was vaguely familiar but I wasn’t sure who Theodor Billroth was. A quick check of Wikipedia revealed that he was a leading physician, an amateur violist, and an intimate friend of Brahms. In a used bookstore I found a collection of Billroth’s and Brahms’s correspondence, which provided a fascinating insight into the composer’s creative mind and the key role the amateur violist played.

The second thing was Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music. This two-volume tome from 1929 I also found in a used bookshop. It is far more than an encyclopedia—it is one man’s personal encomium to the wonders of chamber music. The world of chamber music, Cobbett wrote, “…was an art for which I had a definite affinity. It is not an exaggeration to say that there opened out before me an enchanted world into which I longed to gain an entrance.” The encyclopedia was, like all encyclopedias, erudite, comprehensive, and written by leading experts in the field; on the other hand, it was filled with Cobbett’s own expressions, very personal and very eloquent, of his love for the glories of chamber music.

One thing led to another, and I found myself delving into other episodes of amateur music-making in history: the pivotal role of women in promoting amateur music in America; the brass band movement in Britain, which began as an attempt by moralists and by industrialists to use music to reform retrobates and to quell labor unrest in the coal mines and textile mills of Britain, and ended up as a mass musical movement that swept the country; the romance of Russian Jews of the early 20th century with the violin. In the end, it all started to fit together into a coherent story about the very tradition that we all feel to be our joyful duty to sustain.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of AMN. 

Chamber Music Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Vocal and Choral Music Workshops

The magic of singing together

Anyone who has sung in a vocal group or a chorus knows the feeling: something is just special when we sing together. There’s a marvelous sense of reaching out, of connecting with other voices to make a sound that is more than just our single notes, a sound that merges and grows, with multiple melodies blending into a harmonious whole. Whether it’s a circle of friends singing folk music in our living room or professional singers in a concert ensemble, it’s that elemental joining of voices that, for me, brings emotion to the fore.

We’re so in luck to have Dashon Burton back with us on October 16 to lead a master class on ensemble singing. Dashon is an acclaimed soloist who is equally practiced in singing with others: He is part of Roomful of Teeth and Kaleidoscope, two of the top vocal groups working today!

I can’t wait to get Dashon’s perspective on the singing of two groups in our master class: the Drew School Singers who will sing the luminous 16th century madrigal O Occhi Manza Mia by Orlando di Lasso, and the women’s choir Conspiracy of Venus who will sing A Place Called Home by rock goddess PJ Harvey.

I caught up with Conspiracy of Venus founder and leader Joyce McBride to chat about the group and about her musical path writing and arranging choral music. Music is so much about connecting, about blending our minds and sounds into one. It’s what we aspire to in life as well as in music, don’t you think?

Enjoy the interview and then join us for Dashon Burton’s vocal chamber music master class workshop on October 16!

AMN mentors Chamber Music Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Workshops

Destiny Muhammad and the Jazz Conversation

There’re still conversations in … music that are still alive. And so in this new millennium, what do I have to say as a participant in all those conversations?

– Destiny Muhammad

AMN Founder Lolly Lewis sat down with Destiny over Zoom to discuss the possibilities of AMN’s new workshop format, about Destiny’s devotion to the jazz tradition, and much more.

Lolly Lewis: I’m so excited about our workshop. You know, it’s been a year since you did that wonderful online workshop for AMN talking about the roots of jazz harp. And how great that you’re coming back with your trio to kick off our new series. This is going to be an opportunity for people to play with a professional ensemble in the comfort of home: you will be playing live at the wonderful theater at Drew School, and our participants will be at home with their instruments playing along with you. It’s going to be a new and innovative workshop model that we’re very excited about.

Destiny Muhammad: As am I! It’s definitely very innovative. And, you know, it’s going to be exciting for all of the participants who will have that opportunity to play and to actually interact with us, with Q&A happening during that time as well.

LL: People are very inspired by your devotion to the jazz tradition and the fundamentals of this music. That you really have a passion to convey and to bring people along with the joy that you find in music. I think that’s just so infectious and people really respond to it.

DM: I keep going back to the fundamentals. I can’t speak for everyone else but for me, the fundamentals have always been my launchpad. And when I have those and I feel them, not just in my hands but circulating throughout my DNA, then I feel like I can go anywhere with the music. And so I love the fundamentals. I just keep coming back to those ABCs of jazz.

LL: I think a lot of people who aspire to learn to improvise might feel like oh, I just have to jump off this cliff and do something that’s out of my comfort zone. But what you’ve just said has really sort of turned the light on for me, because if we get into [the fundamentals] we’re not jumping off anything; we’re going from a place of simplicity. And then it can grow and develop and that’s where the skill comes from.

DM: That’s why, even after 30 years of being a musician, I keep going back to the listening. I still need to listen, and then apply it to my instrument. I really encourage folks to really listen.

And I remember being a shorty in the music and hearing the word conversation said to me over and over again, and I didn’t really get it. And then it started to click… I liken it to European classical music where you’ve got chamber music, and you’ve got a cellist and maybe a violist and a violinist and everybody has to be strong in their understanding of the music. And then they come together and they’ve all been studying a particular song or suite of music. But everybody’s strong enough where they’re playing and listening, and their portion of the conversation is shared. And so [in the trio], we’ve all been independently what they call shedding. And then we come together with our own understanding of the music so we can bring that conversation. What is it that I have to say, in [Miles Davis’s] All Blues on my instrument? I’m feeling like I have something to contribute. What do I have to say as a participant in those conversations?

And so that’s what I see when I’m listening to each player. Each one is bringing all of their life experience. This is the thing that I want to share with the participants: bring all your life experience, whatever that is. Here’s the music. Miles wrote it, but what do you have to say?

LL: And that conversation is going to be so fun for people, not only to learn from you, but to really feel like they’re part of the ensemble and that they’re welcomed into that music experience.

DM: It would be wonderful to see you there in the virtual house!!P

Listen to the whole interview and join us on September 18th!

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!

Chamber Music Community Talking about Music

(Take me out to the) music game

photo by Lolly Lewis

They’re renovating the park across from my house. It’s a two-square-block area that includes a playground, a soccer field, and two softball diamonds. I was worried, when they really tore it all out, that they’d use the space for something else, but today it’s almost done and the softball fields, one whole square block, are getting green again. Of course, they don’t seed the field these days; they just roll out huge swaths of lawn. Well, I hope it’s lawn, not plastic, but anyway, from here looking out my window it’s green and it makes me pretty happy. And it reminds me of baseball.

And baseball reminds me of music. No–really. Hear me out.

There was a time, seems like another lifetime now, but I used to be a baseball fan. For several seasons I went to a lot of games, and I have the score books to prove it. 

I love the rhythm of baseball. I love that it simply takes three hours (well, with some pitchers, four), a stretch of time staring at that green expanse of the field that feels like a vacation. Exactly enough time to have the world go away – ahhhhh! – and feel refreshed and ready to dive back into life. And other than your scorebook and pencil, you don’t even have to pack.

I love how the sudden blossoms of action erupt out of nowhere. You take your eyes off the field at your peril. It seems like nothing’s happening, but then, wham! it’s over the fence. And of course, I like a good home run as much as the next guy, as long as the next guy is rooting for my team and it’s my team that hit it. But my favorite thing, by a long stretch, is a double play. There’s something about the way a team moves in the infield, they simply become one thing. They shift together before the pitch, they react together to the hit, partners in this dance, knowing as the ball comes off the bat exactly who will catch, where he’ll throw, where to be and exactly when to be there. Even though, yes they’ve practiced all the permutations a thousand times, still, this time is different, it’s particular, unique. The ball is just the connection between the players, it’s incidental: the infield play is communal, an understanding, a shared breath.

That’s how it’s so much like music. Yes, we all know the notes, and we know what to do, in theory – but when the time comes and you pitch that note, it might be slightly offline and I have to shift without even realizing to catch and pass it on. It’s those instantaneous adjustments that have to happen before you can even know they’re happening, you’re just playing and constantly adjusting to the ball in flight before it even gets hit, you somehow know where it’s going to be and you just be there on time to catch it. 

One time it struck me, watching a string quartet, that they were playing each other’s instruments. Something about the trust between them, and how the musical gestures were passed among them, it really was like the bows were extending across the space between and touching their partners’ strings. Complete mind-sharing. I’ve heard and seen the same thing in jazz, too; it’s the unanimity of impulse and reaction, whether or not every note is written down. 

That’s where the music is: in the rhythm and flow of our minds in complete sync without any possible thought getting in the way. And he’s OUT! Pass me the peanuts and Cracker Jack.

Lolly Lewis is a recording producer, amateur singer, and the founder of Amateur Music Network.