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AMN mentors Vocal and Choral Music Workshops

Words and Music: a workshop with tenor Nicholas Phan

We’re delighted to be hosting Nicholas Phan—praised by the Boston Globe as “one of the world’s most remarkable singers”—in an online Words and Music workshop Saturday, September 19. An avid recitalist and proponent of vocal chamber music, Nick founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago in 2010 to promote art song and vocal chamber music. He has also performed with many of the leading orchestras in North America and Europe, and has sung the title roles in Bernstein’s Candide, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, and many other operas.

We recently chatted with Nick to get a preview of the workshop and a sampling of his professional tips and techniques.

Like most classically trained singers, you sing in a wide range of languages. What was your linguistic training?

My mother is Greek-American, and I went to Greek-language classes at church from first through sixth grade. In middle school my mother arranged for me to audit Greek classes at the University of Michigan. In middle and high school I also studied French, which seemed easy after Greek! Then in college I had two years of Italian and one year of German. I ended up working a lot in Germany, so I had plenty of time to practice my the language.

In addition to those languages, I’ve sung in Italian, Hungarian, Czech, and Russian.

How can amateur singers prepare themselves to sing in languages other than their native language?

The best preparation is a knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which gives a pronunciation symbol for every sound in every language. It’s a helpful shorthand for when you start digging into the sounds of the words.

Then you have to create a sensible translation of the text you’re singing, so you understand the meaning of every word and phrase—not just how to pronounce it.

And then there’s the music!

I tell my students that as singers we have the unique challenge of working with multiple scripts. Instrumentalists have one script: the notes. Actors have one script: the words. As singers we have both, and those two “languages” are very much in dialogue with each other. The music is always trying to give life to the text. In the workshop, I’m looking forward to exploring how those languages communicate with each other to make songs and vocal music the magical thing it is.

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AMN mentors Early Music and Period Instruments Piano Talking about Music Workshops

A new way to perform old music

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer.

You’ve played Bach, Vivaldi, and Haydn for years on your modern instrument. But have you ever wished to play that music in historically-informed style … without investing in costly period instruments?

Now you can! Throughout October, Amateur Music Network is presenting Early Music for Modern Instruments, a series of online workshops for skilled amateur musicians taught by early-music mentors Elizabeth Blumenstock (violin), Eric Zivian (piano and fortepiano), and William Skeen (cello).

Elizabeth, Eric, and William

“With most of us still stuck at home, there’s never been a better time to expand our musical horizons,” says AMN founder and director Lolly Lewis. “If you’ve worked hard on the standard classical path, you know the repertoire. Now you can learn new tools and approaches from early-music specialists that will give you even more appreciation of the music you love.”

What makes early music different from modern music?

The history of music is a history of technology—and of loudness. “Before the early 19th century, smaller ensembles were the rule. Large concerts were rare, outside of opera, and art music was mostly a private thing, something for the homes of wealthy patrons,” Lolly says. “It didn’t need to be very loud because audiences were small.”

That changed in a big way in the early 19th century, as instrument technology improved. Orchestras were getting larger and wind instruments could freely modulate and stay reliably in tune. Composers began writing virtuosic concertos to be played with the larger orchestras: “The solo artist needed to project over that big ensemble sound,” Lolly explains. Violins, violas, and cellos, the primary solo instruments, had to adapt to handle more string tension. Their bridges were raised to create more resonance; necks were set at a steeper angle; bows were redesigned with a concave curve to allow more tension in the hair.

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Baroque (left) and modern violin. Via A415 blog.

 

Baroque and modern violin bows, via Vermont Violins.

“Now we have big, lush string sections and big wind and brass sections with a huge sound,” says Lolly. “That’s what ‘classical’ music sounds like to us—but it’s not how it sounded three centuries ago.”

When she isn’t managing AMN, Lolly is a recording producer. Her interest in early music was sparked in the 1990s when her studio, Transparent Recordings, worked with Bay Area early-music specialists the Artaria Quartet. “It was completely new to me,” she recalls. “I knew it sounded different from modern music, in the intonation and a generally more muted sound, but then I realized that the dynamic range was turned upside down! Instead of emphasizing loudness, there’s a potential for exploring a vast expanse of subtlety that’s almost unlimited. That was really exciting for me.”

Modern instruments aren’t just louder: they’re also able to play reliably in tune in any key. “It all changed with the piano,” Lolly says. “Unlike its ancestor the fortepiano, the modern piano has true ‘equal temperament’—the tuning doesn’t vary across registers and tonal centers. This results in a manufactured tuning system that’s equally out of tune in all keys. Sounds weird, but we’ve become so accustomed to it that this is what our ears are comfortable with now.” Once pianos set the standard, other instruments followed suit.

The evolution of the piano, via Merriam Music.

 

Professional early-music specialists invest in original or replica instruments—a good bow alone can cost many thousands of dollars. But skilled amateurs can adapt their modern instruments—and their technique—to explore the phrasing and articulation of historical style. The limitations of instruments in the past are now opportunities for discovery for the players of today. 

Join us in October to explore some exciting new approaches to familiar and beloved works of music. 

 

NOTE: If you already have Baroque equipment, that’s great! You’ll love working with these great mentors, too.

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AMN mentors Talking about Music Woodwinds

Rufus Olivier and the musician’s toolbox

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer.

We hope you’ve registered for our October 10 online conversation about “the musician’s toolbox” with
the accomplished and delightful Rufus Olivier Jr. A consummate musician and educator, Rufus is
principal bassoonist with the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet, and a former member of
the San Francisco Symphony. We chatted with him on a warm September afternoon while he was taking
a break from a nonmusical activity: painting his house in Sonoma County, California.

What is “the musician’s toolbox,” and how can amateur musicians use it?

I came up with the idea of the musician’s toolbox when I had to give a talk to some high school kids. I printed up some signs and brought them in a little Craftsman toolbox—that’s right, a literal toolbox. On each piece of paper was something a musician needs to practice to get better: long tones, scales, arpeggios, etudes, and so on.

What’s an example of one of these tools?

Long tones are one of the most important tools, especially for a wind player. They get you in touch with your instrument—you’re breathing through it, and it becomes an extension of you. It may seem like a boring exercise, but it may the most useful and important one. After a while it almost becomes a meditation.

When was the last time you performed for an audience?

Opening night of the ballet’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” was Friday, March 6. It was also closing night—after the performance there was an announcement that the city of San Francisco was shutting down because of the pandemic. The following Tuesday they let us back into the Opera House, and we made a video for ticketholders. It’s really good! I really enjoyed being able to listen to the orchestra without my brain constantly on what I’m doing. [Watch a one-minute excerpt from the recording.]

How have you spent your time since the shutdown?

I’ve been performing since I was 15, and I’ve been with the ballet and opera for 43 years, so the shutdown has been like a long weekend off. I painted my house, fixed my lawnmower, got my motorcycle working. I’ve also continued teaching—one of my Stanford students did her whole graduate recital online, with her family members accompanying her. It was great!

I’ve also made a ton of videos. I get up in the morning, practice, and make a video. [Watch Rufus Olivier Jr.’s video for Music in May, a festival in Santa Cruz that was canceled because of the pandemic.]

How is online teaching working out for you?

It’s definitely getting better. Zoom is getting better! I was even able to play a duet with one of my students on Zoom

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AMN mentors Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Piano

Meet Dee Spencer, Jazz professor and music director

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer.

Dee celebrates Mardi Gras on March 9 at the Cafe in the Castro

On August 15, the multitalented Dee Spencer—teacher, performer, music director—will offer an online workshop in jazz-piano improvisation through our Amateur Music Network at Home series. We caught up with her by phone just before she headed out to an evening gig at San Francisco’s Catch restaurant, which had recently reopened for outdoor dining.

What was your early musical life like?

I grew up in a musical family in Wilmington, Delaware. My dad sang, my mom sang. Dad was a huge opera fan, Mom listened to gospel music, my sisters listened to Motown. One of my uncles came to live with us, and he introduced me to jazz. When I was 7 or 8, my mother bought an upright piano and said, “Here you go.” I took classical piano lessons and became the designated accompanist for the family. In junior high and high school I wanted to be in the band, so I switched to woodwinds. I got a four-year oboe scholarship to Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee, and then ended up doing more keyboards than oboe! I became a piano minor, and while I was still in college I got a job at Epcot playing keyboards with a jazz/rock combo and accompanying the singers in the stage shows.

How has the COVID quarantine affected your performing and teaching life?

I teach jazz and musical theater in San Francisco State University’s School of Theatre and Dance. Fortunately, I’d already taught online. What’s changed is that all 18 weeks of instruction have to be complete before I click and launch on August 22. It’s intense! Also, obviously, we can’t do our productions in person yet—everything’s going to be online. It’s a different game, applauding for someone you can’t really see. But a lot of people are doing a really good job with virtual productions.

I’ve used the quarantine to do some songwriting, too. I was music director of One Mo’ Time, and my favorite song from the show is “Cake Walking Babies (from Home).” That was my inspiration for “Quarantine Cakewalk.” It’s a sheet-music exercise—you have to play it exactly as written. It’s not an improvisational exercise at all! [Editor’s note: Read about the history of the cakewalk. Go to our Workshop Resources page to listen to and download the sheet music for Dee Spencer’s “Quarantine Cakewalk.]

Tell us something people may not know about you.

I wrote our high school class song, “What Do We Have to Offer?” It got mixed reviews—my classmates said it “wasn’t happy enough.” But the band director and the choir director liked it, and that was good enough for me!

Something else people may not know is that I play third clarinet in the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. I really like playing third clarinet—you get the lower notes, and you get to hear what the other instruments are doing. I like sitting in the back row—it’s so interesting to blend in with the trombones.

What can participants expect from your AMN workshop?

I’m an improviser, so I can go just about anywhere. I have various game plans, and I’ll see what everyone’s expecting. Are they new to improvisation? Do they already have experience? I want my audience to be engaged—to work hard and have a robust experience and also an enjoyable one.

It seems like COVID has forced all of us to become improvisers. Can you give us some professional advice?

Learning to improvise is a good thing! You discover things about yourself and the world. You’re taking a risk, and that’s good. It’s always good to stretch.

Register now for At Home with Dee Spencer, August 15 at 2 p.m. We may have time for one or two people to play for the group during the workshop. Please contact us at info@amateurmusic.org for more information.

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AMN mentors Talking about Music Woodwinds

Jerry Simas: home-grown musician

This is a guest post by Jerome Simas, clarinetist with the San Francisco Symphony and a founding AMN board member.

I’ve been a professional musician for so many years now that I’m not even sure I could figure out how long. I grew up in a family that was so passionate about music. Metropolitan Opera broadcasts blaring throughout the house during weekend chores, Boston Pops on PBS, folk singers visiting our house when my sister was a 1970s high school student, marching band practice, and the best-of-all story of family lore of my mom apparently putting me in a laundry basket underneath the piano while she accompanied her amateur singing friends from church and community theater: Fiddler on the Roof, Church hymns, Arthur Fiedler, and La Boheme are all just a big blur in my musical DNA.

My father was an accordionist of some renown in Sacramento and the Bay Area back in the heyday of the post WWII can-do optimism. He played gigs, taught lessons, repaired instruments and kept all seven of us Simas kids fed and clothed…that is until the Beatles hit our shores, and no one wanted to play the accordion anymore. So off he went to other professional pursuits. The clarinet seemed like a natural fit for me…a reed cousin of the accordion. My mom was relatively frugal with expenses, but music lessons were something she could get behind. Sacramento Youth Band, Sacramento Youth Symphony, state honor bands in Fresno, Santa Cruz, and Long Beach…Mom and Dad always made time for these things.

I have three of my dad’s accordions sitting on shelves in the garage. I also have a ukulele that I bought as a fun gift for my partner, Robert. That, too, is sitting forlornly in a corner of the living room gathering dust. Now that I’m home for an undefined period of time and with actual time to practice the clarinet the way I want to and should, I’m finding myself more drawn to these other instruments that remind me of family and days gone by. I don’t even know where to begin, but begin I shall.

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.

I’m blessed to have landed a gig with the San Francisco Symphony with our deep connection to the symphonic greats, world class conductors and soloists, tours (weeps inwardly that we had cancel our last and greatest tour with dear MTT), and playing for our marvelous audiences in San Francisco and beyond. Since my involvement with AMN, I have also been so inspired meeting with and mentoring the Bay Area’s wealth of music makers of all levels. We’ll get through this national crisis. Along the way, the rhythms and melodies of who we are will help to ease the way.