The difference between an orchestra and robot spam

Like every other blog on the internet, I get a fair amount of robot spam popping up on this site. Most of it gets caught in the spam filter and I never even read it, but today (after an extended blog absence– sorry!) I logged on to my admin panel to find this comment awaiting moderation:

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 9.15.55 PM [Text: I see a lot of interesting posts on your blog. You have to spend a lot of time writing, i know how to save you a lot of time, there is a tool that creates unique, SEO-friendly articles in couple of seconds, just type in google – k2 unlimited content]

I usually wouldn’t waste my time reading spam comments on my little-used blog, but– wait, what? This was a spam robot commenting (ironically, on my post about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) complimenting my “interesting articles” and… proposing that I use a an automated tool to write blog posts for me? Even better– “unlimited content”! And best of all, it’s “SEO-friendly”; optimized for being found by search engines. It must be every lazy blogger’s dream!

To gain more recognition and reward for less effort and output– that’s the idea that whoever thought this bit of spam was a good idea assumed I– or at least someone– would buy into. Don’t bother writing your own content, and use search engine optimization to become a star and rake in the dough! If only orchestras could apply the same concept to… oh wait…

Yesterday, the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra were locked out by their management. In 2012, after a short lockout, the musicians agreed to a 14% pay cut, a reduction in forces and reduction in the length of the season, with a promise that the pay cut was a one-time-only affair meant to balance the budget once and for all. It didn’t work. Now negotiations are back, and the management are out for blood, it seems. The ASO is trying to seize the right to change, at any time, any aspect of the musician’s health care plan or even the orchestra itself. As in, if they decide that the orchestra should consist of a string quartet, amplified chainsaw and electric banjo, then the orchestra is a string quartet, amplified chainsaw and electric banjo. (And them chainsaw players aren’t even in in the union!) No, but in all seriousness, this would be dangerous news for an orchestra during a time in which the buzzword is “new model.”

Q: Use the buzzword “new model” correctly in a sentence.
A: “Our organization plans on thriving in a new model in which we pay an insufficient number of musicians an insufficient amount of money to play an ever-shrinking number of concerts, more and more of which should have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual symphonic repertoire.”

Or, in the words of the ASO president: “While we value the art and the artists of the ASO enormously, we believe we must develop a new model that will allow us to balance our artistic and financial needs. Clearly, that is not the model we have today.”

Is it not? Why not? The ASO management seemed to think that the “new model” would take shape after the 2012 cuts. The players did as they asked, and trusted them to hold up their end of the bargain. Why should anyone believe it this time?

As Scott Chamberlain says on his blog : “No business thrives by diluting and diminishing their core product. And since the musicians are your core product, I would advise changing your frame of reference to reflect that.”

The core, if humble, “product” of this here blog–such as it is– is words written, or arranged and commented upon, by me. Thus, it is clearly nonsensical for my robotic spammer to suggest that the blog would thrive more by containing fewer words written by me, less often. In the same way, it is nonsensical to suggest that the Atlanta Symphony, or any orchestra, will become more successful by having fewer musicians, having them play fewer and smaller concerts, and paying them less for it. You cannot SEO-optimize* music.

Orchestra managements– stop using the techniques of crude internet spammers to try to run your organizations.

(And everybody else– please see Rob Knopper’s post on the Met Orchestra Musician’s blog about what all of us can do to help the musicians of the ASO!)

*I am aware that “SEO-optimize” is redundant, but it sounds dumb to say “you cannot SEO music.” But, for the record, you also can’t do that.

End of Brott Festival

Three days ago I played principal on both the Firebird and the Rite of Spring in the final Brott Festival concert– did I do that? hey cool, I actually did!– and then the next day my house began the slow process of de-Hamilton-izing.

In front of our house

In front of our house

This was our guard pig. He guarded the house valiantly while wearing this newspaper hat

This was our guard pig. He guarded the house valiantly while wearing this newspaper hat

Or sometimes this stop mute

Or sometimes this stop mute

Eventually Julie turned his hat into another piggy to keep him company

Eventually Julie turned his hat into another piggy to keep him company

Then he photobombed our house picture

Then he photobombed our house picture

Backstage before the second half of the final concert

Backstage before the second half of the final concert

This house played a lot of board- and card-games. Others more so than me because I usually get really angry when I play games.

This house played a lot of board- and card-games. Others more so than me because I usually get really angry when I play games.

Our house had a HUGE backyard!

Our house had a HUGE backyard!

This week I’m reading some quintets with some old friends from the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra days, playing in the orchestra for TaiwanFest at the Harbourfront Centre, and then going up to teach at the Interprovincial Music Camp for the last week of August!

Beethoven, Pines, fruits, vegetables

Last week we had two shows at the Brott festival. On Friday we played The Poulenc double piano concerto, Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Beethoven 5, and a premiere of a piece written by one of the professors at the college we were performing at for that concert, Redeemer University College. I played 1st on the two Beethoven pieces and 2nd on the Poulenc and the new work. I had never played or heard the Choral Fantasy before this concert cycle… it’s a very strange piece, which starts with an extended piano solo which then goes into the “Finale” which constitutes most of the piece. About 3/4 of the way through the work, the choir finally comes in, and the main theme is a kind of prototype of Ode to Joy. Verrry strange… also a scary 16th note passage near the beginning for 1st bassoon! It all went great, though, and the concert seemed well-received overall. Here is a review of that show.

Then on Sunday, we played Bruch’s Violin Concerto, a piece called Martlet’s Muse written by the Maestro’s father, Alexander Brott– which, strangely enough, is about McGill University– Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, and Pines of Rome. I played principal for Pines and second for everything else. I’m pretty sure I nailed the opening lick :P but it’s kind of hard to actually tell! That concert was especially fun because the orchestra had to bring in extra musicians, so there were plenty of new people. I had recommended my friend Kevin, who was in NYO for the past 2 years with me, so he came in to play contra and did a great job. The soloists for the night were Martin Beaver on violin and Nicolò Eugelmi on viola, and they both did masterclasses the next day for the strings. During that same time the brass had a masterclass with horn player Chris Gongos, and the winds had a masterclass with flutist Leslie Newman.

Today we have a day off, and my housemates and I went to this crazy produce place! It’s called Fiddles Wholesale Produce, and it’s operated in this warehouse out back of a residential house. They just have a warehouse floor and two giant walk-in freezers, and you fill a cart and a guy with a calculator figures out how much you owe (cash only). It’s way better quality than the supermarket and about half the price– I didn’t tabulate everything that I got but my housemate Lara did, and for $30 she got: 5 peppers, a bunch of bananas, an avocado, sweet potato, onion, 5 nectarines, an orange, 2 pints of baby tomatoes, basil, grapes, green beans, a kiwi, a pint of blueberries and a big container of raspberries. I got a similar haul, including a giant thing of lettuce that will keep our six-person house well-fed, salad-wise, for quite a while.

Sign at the F.W.P warehouse

Sign at the F.W.P warehouse

For the next week we have a bit of a break on the repertoire, since it’s two pops shows. The first one is Frank Sinatra, and the second is a SECRET. I’m not kidding, I actually can’t tell you. I can tell you to come to the show after that, though, which is Broadway, and the one after that, which is three different versions of the Romeo and Juliet story– Prokofiev’s, Tchaikovsky’s, and the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. You can browse the concerts here.

I aw this bunny outside of the Burlington Performing Arts Centre!

I saw this bunny outside of the Burlington Performing Arts Centre!

Before the Beethoven 5 concert, we went to a restaurant in Ancaster that gives you free cotton candy at the end of your meal.

Before the Beethoven 5 concert, we went to a restaurant in Ancaster that gives you free cotton candy at the end of your meal.

I found this deer waiting next to the bus stop opposite our house as I came home from a run one day.

I found this deer waiting next to the bus stop opposite our house as I came home from a run one day.

I drove a virtual spaceship on my day off, how ’bout you

After the concert on Friday, we have a four day long weekend with NAO. Most of my housemates went to Toronto for the Pride festivities, but I came to Kitchener instead to visit my boyfriend, my mom and see some concerts at the National Youth Orchestra, which is training at Laurier again. Last night I went to a faculty concert where David Hetherington and the percussion students played Tan Dun’s Snow in June, and the string faculty played Schubert’s Quintet. Today we went to Balzac’s– the coffee shop– with one oboist from Brott and one from NYO, and as we were all walking out we saw a sign for CAFKA– Community Art Forum, Kitchener and Area– about something called In Search of Abandoned. A guy inside the building, which happens to be the Communitech Hub, came out and asked if we wanted to see it. We said OK, so we went inside and were led through multiple card-access-only doors to something called the HIVE: Hub Interactive Virtual Environment. It seems like a pretty rad place to work. On the way we saw stuff like this:

Inside the HIVE, three of us got normal 3D glasses and one got special “pilot”s glasses”, which had three little extra motion sensor knobs sticking out of each side of the frames. Then we were in the middle of a bunch of virtual mountains. The pilot controls the perspective on the mountains– if they’re looking down, you see them from above– and uses a steering wheel and some ropes to control the speed and direction, like so:


Obviously the 3D brit doesn't work in pictures. It was 3D, promise.

Obviously the 3D bit doesn’t work in pictures. It was 3D, promise.

The exhibit ends today, so you probably can’t go see it. Sorry. Suckerrrrrs!

(If you want to see something else cool, I’m going to one of the NYO’s free chamber concerts tomorrow. There’s a Mozart flute quartet, Berio’s Opus Zoo– aka the quintet piece that has always eluded me but I really want to play as soon as I find enough other people who are down for it– Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, and the Brahms horn trio. You can find the complete list of NYO chamber music, faculty, and full orchestra concerts here.


The orchestra rehearsing at the Player's Guild in Hamilton

The orchestra rehearsing at the Player’s Guild in Hamilton

On Thursday was our first concert with the National Academy Orchestra! We played Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, the Mozart Requiem, and a piece by the director of the choir who came in for the Requiem. This Friday we have our next concert, which is all Beethoven (a celebration of Beethoven in Eb major?) with the Emperor concerto and Eroica symphony. You can find the full list of concerts here:

The last concert, I should add, has the Rite of Spring, the Firebird suite, and three other pieces on the same program…

They see me rollin’, finally

So, for the past few years, I had been keeping a deep, dark secret.

I couldn’t drive a car. Physically or legally.

This wasn’t always a deep dark secret. I grew up I the west end of Toronto, five minutes away from a subway station. If I wanted to get anywhere inside the city (and, as a true Torontonian, uh, why would you ever want to get anywhere not in Toronto? Come on.) The fastest and cheapest option was the TTC, a station conveniently located 5 minutes from my house. I went to a public high school whose admissions criteria were entirely based on proximity and which feeder school you were coming from, so all of my high school friends were in the same position. In my high school, when you turned 16 you had a party and then continued to walk, ride your bike or take the TTC everywhere you needed to go. Probably a few kids learned to drive, but there was none of the mass excited counting down to your 16th birthday and thus your first permit that I now know there to be in many other places. Nobody really talked about it!

So, when I graduated high school I had no idea that not being able to drive was at all out of the ordinary for someone entering the adult world. When I went to McGill, of course I met many more people who did drive. Almost all of the students from the U.S drove and many even owned their own cars, and of course anyone from a more rural area had felt the necessity of driving as soon as possible. However, since Montreal is also a major city with well-established public transport, very few of the McGill students who did drive actually did so regularly during their degrees (with the exception of those from areas surrounding Montreal who already had cars and were living at home, but I even know lots of people in that position who took public transit.)

The moment at which not driving became a problem was when I won the job in the Niagara symphony. Of course, for a while I had been getting the feeling that I would have to learn to drive eventually. As a freelancer, especially, it’s necessary to be able to transport yourself independently to whatever city or location today’s gig is in. However, since I won the Niagara job before I finished school, I wasn’t expecting to be entering that world of the “freeway philharmonic” so soon. Fortunately, for most of the Niagara services, I was able to find a regular carpool from Toronto with a player who had a van and thus ended up being more or less the NSO chauffeur (sorry, Andy…) However, for the first time I was among people who were living the freeway philharmonic life constantly– driving to a different city every few days to play with a different orchestra. I realized that, although I still wanted to eventually win a full-time job with a major orchestra, I would probably end up being that kind of a freelancer for a while first– and I was pretty excited for it! It may not be the kind of job stability that most university graduates are expecting, but there are worse things, especially when you’re young, than to have constant adventure, excitement and really wild things thrust upon you by your job(s).

In that kind of company, admitting that I couldn’t drive became more embarrassing, because not driving means you’re probably not working much. Which, of course, I wasn’t. But just because you’re the youngest member of an orchestra and the only one still in school (in a different province) doesn’t mean you need to go around reminding everyone of that!

So, I started commuting back to Toronto not just for Niagara gigs, but also (on different occasions) for driving lessons. This was, to say the least, highly inconvenient, and I often cursed my clueless high-school self who could have just done it while actually living in Toronto,and avoided all this fuss.

When I got the Thunder Bay job, however, I was glad that I was putting in the effort to get it done even at this later date, because I can’t imagine not being able to drive in Thunder Bay. I can’t even walk to a grocery store from my apartment in Thunder Bay, and not because my apartment is poorly located. (Actually, most of my neighbours are Lakehead professors, so I’m assuming the neighbourhood where all the professors live must be a pretty good one.)

I finished all of my driving lessons, coming 6 hours on the megabus for each one. Every time my instructor asked if I’d been practicing I just laughed. Naturally I know the value of practicing, and would if I could– but when, and in what vehicle, would I have been practicing? Sooooo, I was actually kind of surprised when yesterday I passed my G1 exit test and got my G2 on the first try! Whereas the G1 is a learner’s permit and doesn’t allow you to drive alone or on the highway, the G2’s only restrictions are that your blood alcohol must be 0 (I rarely drink anyway), you can only have as many passengers as working seatbelts (uh… isn’t wearing a seatbelt required by law anyway?) and you can only drive G class vehicles (alas, my motorcycle dreams have been dashed!) In fact, the G2 is so similar to the full G licence, and lasts for so long as a valid licence (I have to take my G road test by 2018) that lots of people forget they don’t yet have a full licence, forget to take the G test, and end up back at the beginning with no licence at all :P (I’m going to remember to do the next test in time, though!)

The road test was really pretty easy, and only lasted about 15 minutes. My parallel parking wasn’t great but then, she asked me to do it right in front of a driveway that sloped down to meet the street, so no wonder I couldn’t tell where the curb was. There are a lot of stories instructors like to tell of people who failed the test and had to turn back before even getting out of the parking lot, but… you have to remember that those were likely 16-year olds making dumb 16-year old decisions that the examiners deemed too unsafe to even let them out on the road. So, maybe there is an upside to my having waited for so long to learn to drive. :D

Now I just need… a car. Vroom vroom!


Since Convocation and my crazy rash of gigs ended, I have been relaxing ‘n stuff! Pretty much every day I go to the U of T music school to practice. For the past while the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute has been going on in there, so the practice rooms were open (and exciting people like lutists and baroque oboists were populating them!) Now that’s ended so I’m back to finding someone to open the hallway for me, or if it’s fairly busy just banging on the door. On one hand, I’m not really supposed to be in there. I’m not a U of T student. I’m not any kind of student (yee-haw!) On the other hand, music students from other schools would come visit at McGill all the time, and of course someone who needs a practice room and knows how to put it to good use would always be let in to our practice hallway. It’s just a polite thing to do to offer comrades a practice room when they’re traveling :P So, I don’t feel too bad about imposing on U of T. Besides… It’s June. It’s not like the rooms are in high demand. The only irritating thing is that unlike McGill which has handy counter space and free-floating music stands, U of T just has pianos, so my practice space ends up looking like this:


If anyone from U of T is reading this, I promise I’m not spilling reed water all over your pianos! I’m very careful.

I’m working on my music from NAO, as well as the Nussio Variations on a Theme by Pergolesi as a personal project. It’s a bit bizarre working on solo rep with no timeline for it, and not even a weekly check-in with a teacher to measure my progress on it. I have no idea when I’ll get to play it… Nadina did mention something about her doing a masterclass or workshop at NAO, but I don’t think the whole piece will be ready for a public performance by then, and I don’t even know what kind of class it would be in the first place or if that would be a possible venue for my performing it. I’d like to put on some kind of recital some time before I leave for Thunder Bay, in a hospital or church or something, so I would need to chose some more music. I’d like to do some Bach, probably the flute partita in A minor. I really like Bernaud’s Hallucinations as well. Anyway, that’s all far away… In the next few days I just need to move to Hamilton!

Although it feels like longer since I’m not even moved out there yet, the first concert of the Brott Music Festival is actually in only slightly over a week! We’re playing my favourite piece by Mozart– the Requiem– along with the Jupiter symphony and Beckett’s An Offering of Songs. You can buy tickets here:

Always and Only the Self Out There: classical music and Infinite Jest

As well as, um, finishing my degree, I spent most of my last year at McGill reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

I first heard of this book when my dad was reading it a few years ago along with a virtual book club called Infinite Summer (the website for which still has preserved for posterity an excellent collection of essays and resources on the book: I read a few pages, considered the back pain involved in carrying around a copy of the thing in my bag, and forgot about it. This year, I was reading an essay-novella-thing by one of my favourite authors, Neal Stephenson, called In The Beginning Was The Command Line. (ITBWTCL is a fascinating essay, if somewhat dated, exploring the relationship between computer operating systems and wider trends in North American culture. It’s way more fun then I just made it sound like.) ITBWTCL contained an intriguing reference to DFW’s essay E Unibus Pluram. (Which you can read, I’m not sure if legally, here: I’m up for reading pretty much anything Neal Stephenson thinks is worthwhile, so I looked up the collection containing E Unibus Pluram, entitled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and checked it out of the library. It was the titular essay that got me. (Read, in its original appearance in Harper’s, here: DFW is the kind of writer whose enormous talents include the ability to make you say “THAT’S what I actually meant! That’s exactly how I would express what I think if it had occurred to me to do so!” Everything he writes, even if it appears to have nothing at all to do with your life, within a few sentences has you convinced that in fact it is exactly relevant to you, in fact essential, that his thoughts were a part of your being that you were never able to express without his help. Or, as one of the contributors to the Infinite Summer website put it somewhat less pretentiously:

“On the #infsum Twitter channel, catchingdays called Infinite Jest “the first shuffle novel“. That’s a great analogy. The book as like a compilation of Wallace’s favorites, semi-randomized to keep you on your toes.

And do you know why shuffle mode is so popular? Because every once in a while, wholly by chance and when you least expect it, you hear something that you’ve loved all your life. For me it was Eschaton, falling, as it does, squarely on the intersection of two lifelong interests: Cold War politics and games. As the addiction material did for infinitedetox, and the tennis did for Andrew, and the radio did for Michael, this was a portion of the novel that truly resonated with me.”

Needless to say, the next thing I picked up after ASFTINDA was Infinite Jest. As a disclaimer, I should say that I didn’t physically pick it up; I downloaded it and read it on the Overdrive iPad app, which in my mind has several advantages over the traditional format in the case of this particular book. Firstly, it’s lighter. It usually strikes me as somewhat silly when people claim the supremacy of tablets and ereaders over books on he grounds of weight alone– how much weight does carrying around one book really add? Well, in the case of Infinite Jest, a lot. Secondly, easy endnote control. Infinite Jest has a lot of endnotes– 388 of them, many of which are both quite long and important to your understanding of the book– and if you’re reading a physical copy, you’re going to need to have two bookmarks on the go to keep track of where you are in the main text and in the notes. In Overdrive, the endnotes are just hyperlinks, from which you can navigate away from and back to the main text as you please. Third, you can bookmark as many passages as you like! Overdrive remembers where you were the last time you read the book, but I also have a collection of bookmarks at my favourite passages of the book, which with a physical book would have to be accomplished with extensive dog-earing. So, all that to say: if you are going to read Infinite Jest, and have the option to do so via tablet, I recommend it!

With regards to my own reaction to the “shuffle mode” novel: for me, the entire novel seemed as if it were actually intended as a philosophical exploration of music school and the musical profession. It’s an easy connection to make, of course, since much of the action centers around an elite jr. tennis academy, and as all of the musicians who have been usurping sports psychology for decades know, there’s not a whole lot of difference mindset-wise between training to be a pro athlete and training to be a pro musician. And, as much as I try to slog through the tried-and-true Don Greene et al be-a-macho-winner-lifestyle-training-programs, what I really connected with, psychology-wise, is the philosophy that the James O. Incandenza, founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy, recruited his coaches on the basis of. Head coach Schtitt’s principles are explained as:

“Schtitt’s thrust, and his one great irresistible attraction in the eyes of Mario’s late father: The true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only the self out there, on court, to be met, fought, brought to the table to hammer out terms. The competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is what is he word excuse or occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion.”

Is this not exactly the state of mind in which it is necessary to approach auditions? At NYO, Gabe Radford always said that the goal of an audition, any audition, no matter how badly you want or need the job, must always be only “to play well.” The audition is the occasion for playing well. Without playing well, of course, you can’t win the job; but if your only goal is to win the job– O cruel world!– you probably won’t play well! But then, of course, if you adopt the “play well” goal with the purpose of tricking yourself into being able to win the job, well, hopefully you’re really stupid, because you’d have to be to not see right through yourself.

So the only way to truly play well (and thus have a hope of ever getting a job) is to really sincerely adopt Schitt’s principles, whole-heartedly, and really become the kind of person who walks into an audition with only the goal of self-improvement, regarding all the other players and in fact the job and the entire musical profession itself as nothing more than the occasion for meeting the self. And the thing is, there is no element of self-deceit in this; if you choose to attend an audition as an occasion to meet the self, then that is what you are there for; it doesn’t matter what anyone else’s attitude is.

Of course, really truly not caring about winning is easier said than done:

” As Schacht sees it, Schtitt’s philosophical stance is that to win enough of the time to be considered successful you have to both care a great deal about it and also not care about it at all. Schacht does not care enough, probably, anymore, and has met his gradual displacement from E. T. A. ‘s A singles squad with an equanimity some E. T. A. ‘s thought was spiritual and others regarded as the surest sign of dicklessness and burnout. Only one or two people have ever used the word brave in connection with Schacht’s radical reconfiguration after the things with the Crohn’s Disease and knee.”

Schacht– a student at the tennis academy who has decided that after graduation he would like to become a dentist, not a tennis star– is a character highly recognizable to anyone who’s gone to music school: the one who entered with all the musical promise in the world, whose path altered so drastically over the course of their time in music school that those who leave with more of less the same goals as they entered with have no idea what to make of them. For Schacht it was Crohn’s disease and a bad knee that pushed him out of tennis and into the wide world of “doing something else,” as the phrase goes; for musicians it might be focal dystonia, or nerve damage, or fears for your job prospects, or just a pressing feeling that your life could be better spent. Wallace captures perfectly the mix of disdain, fear and a strange kind of envy that many musicians– the ones with fellow tennis student Hal Incandenza’s balls-to-the-wall attitude, anyway– feel towards those who give up The Dream:

“Hal Incandenza, who’s probably as asymmetrically hobbled on the care-too-much side as Schacht is on the not-enough, privately puts Schacht’s laissez-faire down to some interior decline, some doom-grey surrender of his childhood’s promise to adult grey mediocrity, and fears it; but since Schacht is an old friend and a dependable designated driver and has actually gotten pleasanter to be around since the knee…Hal in a weird and deeper internal way almost somehow admires and envies the fact that Schact’s stoically committed himself to the oral professions and stopped dreaming of getting to the Show after graduation– an air of something other than failure about Schacht’s not caring enough, something you can’t quite define…Hal can’t quite feel the contempt for Teddy Schacht’s competitive slide that would be a pretty much natural contempt in one who cared so dreadfully secretly much…”

If you’re a student or professional musician, I think that speaks for itself.

In the end, Infinite Jest is like so many works of music: it’s impossible to say what it’s truly about. If it were possible to summarize accurately, there would be no need for its existence. The only way to “explain” a Mahler symphony to someone is to play it for them; and the only way to know what Infinite Jest is about is to read it.

(If you have read Infinite Jest, and like me don’t really keep up wit the latest in popular music, you may have missed this Decemberists music video when it first came out. Behold: The Decemberists’ Calamity Song, featuring Eschaton!)