Category Archives: Musician stories

Is it possible for an adult to learn violin? This video says ‘yes’

There’s an African proverb, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

For evidence of the wisdom in this proverb, one can look to a person who calls herself Violin Noobie. “I wanted to see if it was possible to learn to play the violin as an adult,“ she writes on her YouTube profile.

According to GOOD magazine, Violin Noobie is 24 years old and lives in Norway. Via her YouTube channel, Violin Noobie shares videos of the progress she has made since beginning learning to play violin — a notoriously difficult instrument to learn — just a little more than two years ago. “I started playing the violin in April 2013 when I was 21 years old,” she explains on her Facebook page. “I had no earlier musical knowledge, and the violin is the first instrument I have learned.”

This five-minute video shows the arc of her progress. It’s remarkable and inspiring.

It’s so impressive how she embraces her learning with humor (“You may want to turn down the volume a bit”), humility, perseverance and — clearly — dedication.

The video also debunks the usual excuses one often hears to dismiss the thought of learning an instrument: “I’m too old”; “I’ll sound bad”; “I’ll look foolish”; “It’s not worth the effort.”

Violin Noobie seems to have laughed at these fears — even embraced them as she shared video of her early practice sessions. And to hear her play the violin now, she has plenty to smile about. Will she play for the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra? Well, probably not, but could she play in a community ensemble, do a solo coffeehouse gig, perform for family and friends, or simply enjoy making music? Absolutely yes.

As GOOD magazine’s Mike Albo writes in his post about this video, Violin Noobie’s experience can be motivating in music and beyond. “Remember this,” Albo writes, “when you decide it’s too much work to stick with your resolution to take up knitting or write a screenplay.”

Pianist tries Kickstarter to fund planned album on Leonardo Da Vinci instrument

Slawomir Zubryzcki, viola organista
Slawomir Zubryzcki, builder of Leonardo da Vinci’s viola organista

It’s quite an accomplishment to build the instrument Leonardo da Vinci envisaged but never realized. Now Sławomir Zubrzycki is taking it a step further. The Polish pianist and the builder of Leonardo’s viola organista plans to record an album of music performed on the instrument.

Zubrzycki has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the album, and with a bit less than a day to go, he’s getting close to his goal (Update, Thursday, Aug. 20, 5:30 a.m. CDT: Zubrycki has met his Kickstarter goal).

The Kickstarter page features additional video of the viola organista in performance (the one we posted proved quite popular with our audience).

And like any Kickstarter campaign, Zubrzycki offers incentives for potential backers, including a generous offer for the most generous donors: A house concert performed by Zubrzycki on Leonardo’s instruement. Zubrzycki has qualified, however, the recipient(s) of the house concert must live in Europe. He’s not planning to transport the viola organista overseas … at least, not yet.

We’re not sure if a concert, an album and a tour were among Leonardo da Vinci’s original visions for the viola organista, but it’s unlikely the feverishly inventive polymath would have disapproved.

You can view the original post of Zubrzycki performing on the viola organista here, and his Kickstarter progress can be tracked on that site.

Lyricist Tim Rice shares advice for aspiring artists: ‘You’ve got to be quite enthusiastic’

Sir Tim Rice receives an Honorary Doctorate from Leeds Beckett University, July 24, 2015
Sir Tim Rice receives an Honorary Doctorate from Leeds Beckett University, July 24, 2015 (photo courtesy Leeds Beckett University)

Presented with an Honorary Doctorate by Leeds Beckett University on Friday, July 24, lyricist Tim Rice shares some advice for aspiring artists and provides a look back on the beginnings of his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Weber.

Lyricist Tim Rice has earned his share of accolades, including Academy Awards, Grammy Awards and Golden Globes for his work on music for such productions as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and The Lion King, to name a few. He’s also earned a knighthood for his services to music.

Just last week, Sir Tim was awarded again — this time with an honorary doctorate from Leeds Beckett University in England. “I am very honored to be given any award at all in any circumstance,” Rice says, “and one from such a distinguished university is terrific.”

Rice was presented the honorary doctorate at Leeds Beckett University’s graduation ceremony on July 24. In the context of a graduation, Rice offered advice to those embarking on careers — particularly those aspiring to work in the arts. “You’ve got to be quite enthusiastic about your job, there’s no point in doing something you don’t like,” Rice says. “I started out in law which I thought was a thing I should do, but I didn’t like it so was therefore no good at it. If you are genuinely interested in the arts, even if you don’t think you have an incredibly basic talent, there’s so many things you can do in the arts world that aren’t actually being an artist; you can be behind the scenes which doesn’t involve you getting up on the stage or painting etc. It’s the people behind the scenes that make the most money.”

Rice also shares an amusing story about how he and Andrew Lloyd Weber began their musical collaboration. “I never really thought about going into the theater world when I was young,” Rice says. “I didn’t know much about the theater, but I knew a little bit about musicals from my parents’ record collection. It was through meeting Andrew Lloyd Webber really. I was writing pop songs, he was trying to write theater stuff, our paths crossed and we decided to go for his idea, which was very sensible because we would never have been better than the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but there was nobody doing what we were trying to do, so we were number one in a field of one for a while.”

Gifted with the perspective of a long life and career, Rice says he’s more interested now in what his children are doing in their careers rather than in his own. “I think when you get to a certain stage you want your offspring to have a happy life and success more than you do for yourself,” he says.

“Sir Tim Rice is an inspirational and prolific figure in the history of British music and theater,” Leeds Beckett University Vice Chancellor, Professor Susan Rice says of honoring the acclaimed lyricist. “It was delight to welcome him to our Headingley Campus and to recognize his enormous contribution to music and the arts.”

You can listen to Sir Tim Rice’s thoughts from last Friday by clicking the audio player here. Audio is courtesy Leeds Beckett University.

Gustavo Dudamel cancels concert appearances due to back pain

Gustavo Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel (photo by Vern Evans)
Back injuries are nothing to take lightly, even if you’re one of the most sought-after conductors in the world.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Gustavo Dudamel “has canceled upcoming public appearances in June due to severe pain in his back … The music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is suffering from intense lower back spasms and has been ordered to stop working for now,” Dudamel’s spokeswoman said.

Dudamel is expected to return to conduct the LA Phil on July 21.

Although this news has been reported by the Los Angeles Times as well as by Norman Lebrecht and others, as of this publication, there is no official statement on the LA Philharmonic website or on Gustavo Dudamel’s own site.

(h/t Elena See)

Olive Oil and Opera

Tenor Bryan Hymel (photo by Dario Acosta)
Tenor Bryan Hymel (photo by Dario Acosta)
Tenor Bryan Hymel surprised patrons with live, impromptu singing at his favorite Italian grocery in New Orleans.

Bryan Hymel grew up in New Orleans, La., and like many people from that region, Hymel’s surname is French.

But it turns out Hymel also has Sicilian heritage, as he describes in the video below, produced by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Celebrating his Italian roots, Hymel turned up at Central Grocery, his favorite Italian grocer in New Orleans, where he sang for customers as they shopped and as they enjoyed fresh sandwiches from the deli:

Given his roots, is it possible that Hymel is genetically predisposed to sing French and Italian songs so well? Perhaps; after all, Hymel’s debut recital album, Héroïque, features his performances of a number of heroic tenor roles of French opera. The album is featured on this week’s New Classical Tracks.

Tapping into music’s healing power

Music Therapist Tacy Pillow
Tacy Pillow is a music therapist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. In addition to in-patient visits, Pillow has played guitar during routine procedures and surgeries. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)
We often talk about how music can inspire, console, excite and entertain us. It can also help us get well — or at least, help us cope more easily with the process of getting well.

Mary Plummer, an education reporter at our sister station KPCC in Los Angeles, reported this week on how at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, there’s an Expressive Arts and Therapies Department. Doctors and nurses at the hospital can order art therapy in the same way they can prescribe medication.

One of the people on staff is music therapist Tacy Pillow. Besides being able to play fingerpicking guitar while wearing latex gloves (no small feat, that), Pillow has done research on the effects of music therapy on babies; in her study of 165 infants, 95 percent recorded lower heart rates after receiving music therapy. Pillow told KPCC:

“Music is always something that calms them. It can help calm them during routine procedures like a diaper change, or I’ve worked with higher medical staff even during, like, different surgeries,” she said.

Plummer’s article also describes other art forms, including drawing and filmmaking, as treatments available to older children and adults.

It raises an interesting question for people who study music: When we look at possible music careers, most of the focus is on performing, composing or teaching. Those pursuits are certainly good ones, but what about music therapy? It may be another career path for aspiring musicians to consider.

Requirements may include ability to play while wearing latex gloves.

You can read Mary Plummer’s complete story — which includes audio and a slideshow — by visiting KPCC’s website.

The Sound of Music: Film versus Fact

Promotional photo of the Trapp Family Singers from 1941.
Promotional photo of the Trapp Family Singers from 1941. (Metropolitan Music Bureau, New York. Photo by Larry Gordon.)

It’s the 50th anniversary of the release of the beloved musical film, The Sound of Music. It turns out there are significant differences between the actual story of the Trapp family and what is depicted on screen … but not enough to disrupt the Trapps’ — nor anyone else’s — enjoyment of the picture.

On March 2, 1965, 20th Century Fox released the film The Sound of Music. Starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and featuring music by Rodgers and Hammerstein (and an original score by Irwin Kostal), the film garnered multiple awards, including the 1965 Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise) and Best Music – Scoring of Music for Kostal’s adaptation.

The film remains one of the most beloved of all time, and has earned a spot in numerous lists from the American Film Institute. To this day, cinemas often screen sing-along exhibitions of the film; it clearly remains one of countless people’s “favorite things.”

But as gripping as the story is as depicted on film, it actually is quite different from the Trapp Family’s real-life experience. In an interview with Louise Hidalgo for BBC Magazine, here’s what the Trapps’ youngest son said about the film version of the family’s story:

“Everyone thinks the Sound of Music was exactly the way things happened, and of course it wasn’t because there had to be artistic licence,” says Johannes von Trapp. He is the youngest son of Georg and Maria — the decorated naval commander and singing nun turned governess of the film.

“This was the Hollywood version of the Broadway version of the German film version of the book that my mother wrote.

“It’s like the parlour game where you whisper a word in your neighbour’s ear and he whispers it and it goes around the room — by the time it comes back it’s usually changed a bit.”

Some of the changes are innocuous; for instance, the family had 10 rather than seven children. Other changes punch up the story; one example is that the Trapp family didn’t escape post-Anschluss Austria by hiking over the Alps to Switzerland. Instead, they took a train to Italy.

There was one particular change the family did not enjoy. In the film, Christopher Plummer’s character is stern and domineering at first. Although his transformation heightens the story, in reality, Georg von Trapp was genial and kind. According to a “Movie vs. Reality” article written by Joan Gearin of the U.S. National Archives, this change “distressed [the] family greatly.”

Other adaptations were welcome, and overall, the Trapps enjoyed the cinematic retelling of their story. In her article for BBC Magazine, Hidalgo relates this reaction from Maria von Trapp:

Maria later recalled, in a BBC interview, that she only learned Hollywood was making a film when she read about it in a newspaper.
“I felt very alarmed,” she said. “I didn’t know what they are going to do with us … Hollywood being Hollywood, [I thought] they will have me three times divorced and five times married or whatever. And then it turned out so nice — especially the beginning with the mountains and me coming up over the meadow.”

You can read more about the comparisons between the true story of the Trapps and the story told in The Sound of Music by reading Hildalgo’s complete article in BBC Magazine and by reading Gearin’s piece from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration in its entirety.

Marin Alsop keeps her parents’ instruments playing

Conductor Marin Alsop
Conductor Marin Alsop (Adriane White)
About a year ago, conductor Marin Alsop experienced what she herself called a “nightmare double whammy” — the death of her mother, and then her father, within less than two weeks.

Both of her parents were string players, who owned fine old instruments.

As reported in the New York Times, Alsop has now found a way for those instruments to play on. She’s loaned them to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which she conducts. Alsop says that when she hears her parents’ violin and cello, “the sound is like their voice, in a way.” Read the full story here.

Music world reacts to Paris attack

Police forces gather in street outside the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday, after armed gunmen stormed the offices. (Martin Bereau AFP/Getty Images)

On tomorrow’s Performance Today, we’re broadcasting a concert recording from Paris, from a venue very close to today’s Charlie Hebdo attack.

Musicians are among the millions around the world who have reacted with shock, anger, and in many cases, with new resolve to the Charlie Hebdo attack.

American cellist Alisa Weilerstein tweeted “Long Live Freedom of Speech.” And she used the hashtag “#JeSuisCharlie.” I am Charlie.

Italian conductor Enrique Mazzola lives and works in Paris. He tweeted “with all my heart near my friends in Paris.”

The Martha Graham Dance company tweeted: “We stand in solidarity with artists from all over the world: for freedom of speech and expression. #jesuischarlie.”

How should … and how CAN artists respond … to violence?

Three days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, conductor Leonard Bernstein wrote: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

And I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with composer John Luther Adams. We talked about how artists respond to terrible events in the world.

He mentioned the great painter, Claude Monet. At the height of World War I, Monet retreated to the gardens of his home in the French countryside. Not simply as an escape: his own son was in the war. The front moved to within about 30 miles of the garden. But still — every day — Monet stepped outside … and painted water lilies. In full awareness of what was going on around him. Composer John Luther Adams picks up the story from there.

“He confided to a friend that he felt guilty pursuing his ‘little studies,’ as he put it, of form and color, while so many people were dying and suffering. The irony is that those last paintings of the water lilies were his greatest gift to a troubled world. So that spoke to me the imperative of art in our times … and in all times.”

On behalf of each one of us at Performance Today: Je suis Charlie.

Rules are clarified for flying with instruments


View while in flight (MPR photo/Luke Taylor)

This week, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a final rule to implement section 304 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 regarding the carriage of musical instruments as carry-on or checked baggage on commercial passenger flights. The rule was published on Dec. 29, 2014, and signed by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony R. Foxx; the rules go effective 60 days from that date.

According to the background information in the publication, Section 403 of the act already requires U.S. air carriers to accept musical instruments on flights as either checked or carry-on baggage, but acknowledges that musicians were encountering inconsistency while traveling. Members of the string ensemble Time for Three, for example, have experienced difficulties, as documented by violinist Nick Kendall and by bassist Ranaan Meyer. Other musicians, meanwhile, have brought instruments on board and have even performed while in flight.

To address all this, in July 2014, the DOT convened a “Flying with Musical Instruments” meeting to give airline representatives, musicians and government officials a way to share ideas about how to resolve challenges. The new ruling came out of those sessions.

Highlights of the new ruling include:

  • “… carriers must allow a passenger to carry into the cabin and stow a small musical instrument, such as a violin or guitar, in a suitable baggage compartment, such as the overhead bin or udner the seats in accordance with FAA safety regulations.”
  • “For some musical instruments that are too large to fit in the cabin stowage areas … it is sometimes possible to secure them to a seat as ‘seat baggage’ or ‘cargo in passenger cabin’ … FAA safety regulations do not mandate that a carrier must allow in their carry-on baggage programs the stowage of a large carry-on item on a passenger seat … We do, however, encourage these carriers to consider modifying their programs to allow the stowage of large musical instruments at passenger seats, provided that all safety requirements are met.”
  • “When assigning a seat that will be used to transport a musical instrument as cargo in the passenger cabin, carriers must not assign a seat where the instrument may obscure other passengers’ view of safety signs that are required to remain visible.”
  • “With respect to the cost to a passenger to transport a musical instrument on a passenger seat … carriers cannot charge the passenger more than the price of a ticket for the additional seat … However, this does not preclude carriers from charging standard ancillary service fees.”
  • “… this rule requires carriers to accept musical instruments in the cargo compartment as checked baggage if those instruments comply with the size and weight limitations … we conclude that carriers may impose the same checked-baggage charges that apply to other checked baggage of that size and weight.”
  • “The rule would require most covered carriers with specific policies about transportation of musical instruments to modify these policies to comply with the rule requirements; update written, electronic, and phone guidance provided to customers; and ensure that gate agents, flight crews, and baggage handlers are aware of these requirements.”

The DOT publication also provides tips to musicians who are travelling with instruments; in particular, it encourages musicians who are hoping to travel with a carry-on instrument to arrive early for flights or even to pay for priority boarding on flights — especially since carry-on and on-board cargo space is offered on a first come, first-served basis.

Among the benefits of the new ruling, the DOT document states:

Beneficiaries of the rule would include professional and amateur musicians who travel with instruments, particularly large instruments that may be subject to more restrictive transportation limits under current carrier policies. Increased ability of these musicians to travel with their instruments could also potentially benefit owners and employees of establishments hosting musical events and people who attend events at which these musicians would be more likely to be able to play.

It also lists amateur musicians — particularly school musicians and music teachers — among the beneficiaries, as many school bands occasionally travel.

Airlines may experience some costs due to training staff people and updating printed and online documentation about the policies; the DOT document estimates those total industry costs to be “about $732,000.”

In response to the new DOT publication, the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM), AFL-CIO, issued this statement on Dec. 31, 2014:

“We applaud the efforts of Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and our AFM allies in Congress for the new administrative ruling on the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012,” states AFM International President Ray Hair. “For many years, AFM members have been subject to very arbitrary and contradictory size and weight requirements imposed by each airline for musical instruments that are carried on board the airplane or checked as baggage. Airlines will now follow a consistent policy for all musicians traveling with instruments.”

What are your thoughts on the new rules? Will they affect you? If you travel with an instrument, do you expect air travel to change for you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.