Music Camp as Radical Catalyst

Music Camp as Radical Catalyst

So you’re back from music camp! At their best, music camps are radical catalysts for learning. Your mind brims with memories, teachings, discoveries, and good intentions for continuing your development. You’re determined to return the following year a much-improved musician.

Sadly, our best intentions for self-improvement often go unrealized unless we apply discipline, strategy, planning, and accountability. Let’s take some practical steps to ensure that we maximize our newly gained potential.

Note: if you’re still grappling with the transition to normal life, read Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome – A Survivor’s Guide. Once your body, mind, and feelings have regrouped a bit, get to work!

Gather New Materials (and Start Using Them!)

The Berklee strings team performing and teaching at Interlochen Arts Academy! (L to R): Eugene Friesen, Maurizio Andre Fiore Salas, Bengisu Gokce, Samuel Draper, David Wallace

At music camp we often learn about supplemental materials for deepening our understanding, expanding our repertoire, and helping us to practice and improve. Although we may have obtained many of these items at camp, we seldom return home with everything we intend to investigate, read, or buy.

Make a shopping list, prioritize, and purchase. Get that recording app, those scale or etude books, that recording you want to study or transcribe. Borrow items from a library. If you missed details and need to contact someone for correct titles or more information, do so.

If you’ve already gathered your new materials, devise a plan for using them. Then, implement it before the week is over. Remove and discard any shrink-wrap, and put sheet music on your stand. Now, let’s get ready to practice. . .

Revisiting Music Camp Lessons

Next, revisit your daily schedules. Read any notes that you took, and listen to recordings you made of classes. -You did record classes and lessons didn’t you? If not, there’s a good chance that a friend or colleague did. Hunt the recordings down if you can.

Write out a summary each session, or recap them by recording a voice memo or video reflection. What did you learn? What were the “big truths?” List the exercises and studies you received, and write down everything you want to implement.

Berklee Music Camp Faculty

Berklee Global String Intensive Faculty. Back Row (L to R): Simon Shaheen, Jason Anick, David Wallace, Joe Walsh, Greg Liszt, Sandra Kott, Oisín McAuley, Stash Wyslouch, Darol Anger, Felice Pomeranz. Front Row (L to R): Patrice Jackson-Tilghman, Eugene Friesen, Natalie Haas, Mike Block, Mimi Rabson, Bruce Molsky. Not pictured: Beth Bahia-Cohen, Dan Bui, Bruce Gertz, Maeve Gilchrist, Jozef Nadj, Rob Thomas, Matt Glaser

I often leave music camp with very specific ideas for how I can improve, but unless I make a follow-up plan, nothing changes. To prevent that from happening to you, I suggest that you try the 100 Points of Awesomeness exercise. . .

A Hundred Points of Awesomeness

Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Music Camp

Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp & Music Festival’s entire crew!

In my late teens, I often wished that I could be better in certain aspects of my playing and musicianship. One day, I asked myself, “If I had a hundred ‘improvement points’ to invest in my musicianship, how would I spend them?”

I made a mental list allotting the hundred points to different aspects of my playing (I devoted ten points to tenths-  at the time I was wrestling with a couple of tricky Paganini caprices in my violin lessons). After specifying exactly what I wanted to improve, I adjusted my practice time strategically. Once I reorganized my practice schedule to include my new goals, I started developing my unrealized potential.

Music camp just gave you 100 Points of Musical Awesomeness to invest in your own development. Fantasize. What do you want to improve? What do you know you need to improve? Practice time is finite, so focus your energy by dividing your 100 points of awesomeness across just a few select topics.

Once you follow through, a year from now, you will be at least 100 points more awesome than you presently are.  If you achieve your goals sooner, give yourself 100 additional points to distribute.

Your distribution of the 100 points is totally up to you, but it could look something like this:

  1. 30 points: Play better in tune.
  2. 30 points: Improve my timing and rhythm.
  3. 25 points: Get better at improvising solos.
  4. 15 points: Develop better confidence and stage presence when performing.

So, let’s break that down.

Pursuit of Awesomeness

A Violinist's Guide to Exquisite Intonation#1:  Better intonation means committing to daily scale and arpeggio practice. Record and critique yourself; practice with drones. Research the topic using published resources like Barry Ross’s A Violinist’s Guide to Exquisite Intonation. While your technical regimen will naturally include intonation work, also focus on it in your repertoire practice.

#2: For improved timing, work daily with a metronome, drum machine, or accompaniment track. Moreover, play along with recordings by bands with great groove. (Try practicing your scales to Earth, Wind, & Fire songs in the same key).

Reading scores, conduct along with recordings, or practice rhythmic exercises away from your instrument. Check out Robert Starrer’s Basic Rhythmic Training or Rhythmic Training. Drumming methods such as Kim Plainfield’s Advanced Concepts: A Comprehensive Method for Developing Technique, Contemporary Styles and Rhythmical Concepts are also helpful. Because good timing means tapping into group rhythm, plan readings, jams, rehearsals, and concerts with others.

#3: To get better at improvisation, you must be specific. What do you want to improve? Free improvisation, 12-bar blues, the 8-bar country music solo, navigating chord changes from a lead sheet? Using your camp notes to guide you, set some specific objectives. Write out a plan so that every day, you’re making strides.

#4: To improve stage presence, you need an audience. Make a plan for performing publicly on a weekly basis. Find a venue. Cafés, retirement communities, houses of worship, and public spaces are a few places where you can build your stage presence.

Start with a comfortable setting, and play repertoire that you know very well. If you don’t feel ready for the public, perform for family, friends, or even pets. Video your performances so that you can review, critique, and improve. If you wrestle with performance anxiety, check out my Conquer Stage Fright YouTube video series.

Establish a Music Camp Accountability Partner or Group

Once you have a plan, hold yourself accountable for it. Better yet, get an accountability partner or a support group to keep each other accountable and motivated. Share your goals for the month and the week, and check in with each other every few days. Make recordings and videos and give each other feedback. Always celebrate progress and encourage one another.

Online Learning Communities and Lessons

Online communities can further boost accountability. Consider starting a small online group to share and report back on a daily basis (twelve or fewer members; smaller is better).

Today, many music camp faculty members also teach with online subscription sites that offer lessons and a built-in learning community. I teach lessons focused on violin and viola technique, peak performance, memorization, and much more at MyTalentForge.com. Until Labor Day, you can use the discount code DocWallace for 20% off on your subscription.

Get Radical!

As you can see, it’s possible to carry the music camp experience across the entire year. Get your materials together, review your learning, strategize for improvement, make plans, and belong to an accountable learning community. May your music camp experience be a catalyst for radical improvement, growth, and change!

-Doc Wallace, August 5, 2017

Dr. David Wallace serves as String Chair of Berklee College of Music, and teaches online string lessons at MyTalentForge.com. During the summer, catch him at Berklee College of Music’s  Global String Intensive, Five Week Summer Performance Program, and Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp.

Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome: A Survivor’s Guide

Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome: A Survivor’s Guide

Music camp withdrawal symptoms hit hard once you return to “the real world.” Just listen to this distraught message I received from Chuck Bontrager, heavy metal violinist and concertmaster of Chicago’s Hamilton orchestra, two days after the MWROC festival concluded:

 

Doc Wallace and Chuck Bontrager at The Bell Fine and Performing Arts Center following their headlining MWROC 2017 concert.

Me and Chuck Bontrager at The Bell Fine and Performing Arts Center following our headlining concert at MWROC 2017.

Doc! Doc! You gotta help me, Doc! I think I might be going through some kind of withdrawals. I’m having the constant urge to put on my Doc Martens and jump around onstage with some kind of crazy instrument for a bunch of people screaming at me, playing ear-blisteringly loud music and fantastic original compositions. What do I do, Doc, what do I do?!!!”

We’ve all been there. Disorientation, hyperactivity, fatigue, lethargy, insomnia, loss of focus, longing, flashbacks, loss of appetite, ravenous appetite. . . Say, “Hello!” to Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome! [MCWS]

If you’ve come down with a bad case of  Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome, try one or more of these tried and true prescriptions:

Understanding Stress and Recovery

I’m a staunch follower of athletic trainer Jim Loehr’s book, Toughness Training for Life. Loehr emphasizes stress management as a primary means of attaining peak performance and maintaining homeostasis (physiological and psychological balance). According to Loehr, top-tier athletes and artists manage stress through targeted recovery. In other words, we can offset our physical stress by pursuing physical recovery. Similarly, we can counter our emotional stress by investing in emotional recovery, and so on.

Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome Demands Physical Recovery

You’re probably short on sleep, so go to bed early. (Really early!) Sleep late. Take naps. In 1999, sleep scientist, Dr. William C. Dement published a game-changing book, The Promise of Sleep. In it, he repeatedly underscores a clinically proven fact: sleep debt is cumulative. You can’t sleep off a week of short nights with just one full night’s sleep. To offset the cumulative sleep debt of a week-long music camp, you probably need at least full week of extra sleep. Plan for it, and rest without guilt. You’re rebuilding your body and mind, not being lazy.

Of course, your sleep schedule may be a bit of a mess right now, and you may not feel like going to bed. Do so anyway. If insomnia is a problem, accept it, but stay alert to moments during the day when sleepiness overpowers you. In those moments, stop everything and take a recovery nap.

Eat more cruciferous vegetables to combat Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome!

Speaking of physical recovery, how’s your nutrition? At camp, you probably were snacking, eating not-so-healthful foods, consuming too much sugar, and drinking larger than usual quantities of caffeine and dehydrating beverages. Reduce or curtail your intake of junk food, stimulants, and depressants. Eat more vegetables, especially green, leafy, and cruciferous ones! Drink plenty of water.

Did you exercise while at camp? If not, this might be a good time to get back in shape. Jog, swim, dance, take long walks, lift weights – anything that boosts your circulation can also elevate your energy levels and mood.

Conversely, if you were exhaustively active at camp, you probably need a few days of complete physical relaxation and rest to reset your body chemistry to a less adrenalized state.

Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome Requires Emotional Recovery

Combat Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome by turning a friend into a humorous meme!

Combat Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome by turning a friend into a humorous meme!

Although most people only think of stress as coming from negative or anxiety-producing sources, positive stress also knocks our body chemistry out of kilter. If you experienced intense, emotional highs at camp, a certain amount of depression or lethargy will likely follow. (“What goes up. . .”)

Similarly, an abrupt separation from a community of likeminded friends can trigger an emotional crash.

How do we cope with these inevitable lows? Social withdrawal symptoms demand social cures, so stay in touch with your camp friends and colleagues. Use your phone, email, social media, or group hangouts. Put a reunion date on the calendar, or arrange an in-person visit.

Fight depression with good humor, laughter, and fond memories. Turn a colleague into a meme, or a gif:

 

Without a doubt, smiling and laughing together can help us to regain our equilibrium. I got a good laugh from a short, hilarious, nonsensical movie that my MWROC student Quinton Stickley made of me. The film consists of nothing but bizarre moments from my lessons edited together with absolutely zero context. I’d post it, but you’d probably conclude that I’m a lunatic and would disregard the rest of my advice. -And that would be a shame because the next suggestions can lead you to some profound discoveries. . .

Reflection as a Means of Coping, Deepening Experience, and Finding Closure

In his book, Art as Experience, educational philosopher John Dewey shares an essential truth: when we neglect to reflect, we fail to learn from our experiences. You went to music camp to learn, not to fail, so let’s reflect.

Take a long solo hike, jog, or bike ride. Keep a slow, steady pace, and let its rhythm set a calm, objective tone. See where your mind goes and where the memories take you. What do you notice? What do you learn?

Set up a camera, start filming, and let a stream of thoughts about your camp experiences and relationships spill forth. What were your highlights, epiphanies, discoveries, embarrassments, ‘druthers, joys, successes? What are you still working through? -You don’t even need to watch or share your video. However, you might learn more if you do.

Keep a journal. Whether you write by hand or type, journaling crystallizes your thoughts, captures key ideas, processes confusing experiences, and provides a safe means of addressing lingering problems.

–Let’s face it: not all music camp experiences are positive. Writing can slow down your thought process, still your emotions, allow you to view things objectively, and help you to resolve or release any less-than-positive experiences. Sometimes, full recovery from Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome requires forgiveness. (Both asking and receiving).

Thorough Reflection Involves Others

One of my favorite ways to reflect is to write a thank you note and send it to the directors, staff, teachers, or students of a camp. Trust me, you never know how much work it takes to run a music festival or camp until you actually do it yourself. A simple thank-you message means more than you can imagine.

Of course, you can reflect through visual means, too. Arrange your photos or videos into an album, or make a scrapbook, and share. Enjoy other people’s videos and photos; comment and share them.

Listen again to the concerts, and jam sessions. A simple recording can put a smile on your face and take you right back to a great moment. Every time I play Victor Furtado and Andrew Vogt’s street jam from the 2017 Berklee Global String Intensive, I’m transported to the joyful intensity of our Berklee summer jams.

Remember to balance solitary reflection with social reflection. You gain deeper perspective when you share with friends and listen to them. When I returned Chuck Bontrager’s call, we enjoyed almost two hours of fellowship. It was good therapy.

Plan Your Next Fix

If you’re a hardcore musician, Music Camp Withdrawal Syndrome may chronically reappear throughout the year. In truth, your MCWS may never fully dissipate. The bad news: you may be hooked on music camps for life! The good news: you always have something to look forward to. . .

Do a quick search to see if there are any more camps you can attend this summer. [I’m on a plane to Interlochen Arts Camp, as I type this.  My MCWS is nil at the moment because I’m about to get another good, strong dose of music camp]. If not, it’s not too early to start saving your money for next year.

Start a countdown clock. Register for next year’s camps as soon as you can. Start practicing and planning your performances.

Naturally, you want to be a better musician at your next camp. Once you’ve had a chance to regroup and rest, move on to part two of this blog, Music Camp as Radical Catalyst. Turn your MCWS into motivation, so that you can maximize what you learned this year.

Dr. David Wallace serves as String Chair of Berklee College of Music, and teaches online string lessons at MyTalentForge.com. (SUMMER SALE! Until Labor Day, you can use the discount code DocWallace for 20% off on your subscription!) During the summer, catch him at Berklee College of Music’s  Global String Intensive, Five Week Summer Performance Program, and Mark Wood Rock Orchestra Camp.

Road to Nowhere: Covering a Classic

Road to Nowhere: Covering a Classic

What’s the first CD you ever bought? Back in the 80’s, when those shiny new laser disks appeared in elongated cardboard packages, my first purchase was Talking Heads’ Little Creatures.  I enjoyed the entire album, but I particularly liked to play the final track, “Road to Nowhere,” on endless repeat.

ABOVE: Watch David Wallace & Friends perform Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” at the 2016 MWROC festival.

Road to Nowhere in the Golden Era of MTV

In fact, MTV’s heavy rotation of “Road to Nowhere” was probably what prompted me to buy Little Creatures. Lead singer David Byrne always had artistic concepts and films for Talking Heads’ songs. “Road to Nowhere” remains my favorite for its symbolism and cinematography:

Byrne perpetually jogs on an invisible treadmill in the lower right hand corner. Meanwhile, other band members perpetually twist, age, and cycle through life’s major events.  If you watch the video in slow motion, or frame by frame, prepare to catch oddities you may have missed while staring at the jogging Byrne:

We briefly witness Trinity, the world’s first detonation of an atom bomb (0:59-1:01)

Road to Nowhere Trinity Atomic Test Film

Screenshot of the original Trinity atomic test film, briefly excerpted in the Talking Heads video

At 1:20, drummer Chris Frantz appears to have become a musical Sisyphus, dragging a heavy accordion up a steep hill.

And then we see sparring, rotating men wearing business suits and Mexican luchador masks (1:45). I can’t explain why this ten-second montage rings so true to me, but it does.

Does the stop-motion animation beginning at 2:55 looks familiar? That’s because it inspired the subsequent video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”

Covering Road to Nowhere

At the 2016 MWROC Festival, I needed a set-closer to follow my new electric viola tone poem, Array of Irrevocable Light. Since “Array” digs deeply into nuclear wonders, threats, and problems, “Road to Nowhere” seemed a fitting conclusion. Why? Well, consider David Byrne’s summary of the song: “I wanted to write a song that presented a resigned, even joyful look at doom.” Although I intended to take my audience to some dark places, I also wanted to leave them joyful.

A few notable covers of “Road to Nowhere” exist. (For example, check out Jars of Clay or the Young at Heart Chorus). For my unique spin, I added violins, cello, and rhythm viola to the original orchestration. To me, the song feels as timely today as it did when I first spun Little Creatures in 1986.  Enjoy!

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

Do you dream about your work? A colleague of my father’s once invoiced an employer to compensate his sleeping hours. (Purportedly, he had solved a problem in a dream.) Because chemical engineers are expected to sleep on their own time, his request was denied.

Billing for dreams may sound ludicrous and pretentious, but I get it. Invest enough time and energy into your work, and it will seep into your subconscious and haunt your dreams.

Doc Wallace David Wallace Teaching Artist Nightmare New York Philharmonic

A young Doc Wallace breaks down a violin concerto for a New York Philharmonic music educator’s seminar. Photo Credit: Rob Klein

Teaching artists spend the majority of our waking hours helping others to connect to an artwork’s essence. When all goes well, people become transfixed or transformed by it. We dream about this, figuratively and literally.

On a good night, a teaching artist dream inspires a new, complete lesson plan: you have a vision of people standing in a circle and simulating a fugue as they bounce and pass basketballs. On a bad night, we relive the times that we miserably failed to bring others into the magic of a masterpiece. In the teaching artist nightmare, things get weird and nerdy pretty quickly. . .

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

A young Johannes Brahms sits defiantly enough to inspire a teaching artist nightmare

Johannes Brahms: Musical dreamboat or teaching artist nightmare?

Last night’s teaching artist dream was abysmal. At a noisy, crowded dinner party, the stranger seated beside me randomly asked me why I love Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98. (Go ahead; judge my repressed desires. . .)

Taken off guard, I rambled incoherently. Oh, I was passionate all right. I listed musically solid reasons: intervallic relationships, compound meters, architectonic layers of rhythmic pulsation. . . Perceptually speaking, though, I gave my polite listener absolutely nothing of value. (Did I mention Phrygian melodies?)

I summarized the finale’s greatness with a simple sentence:

“The fourth movement. . .”

[emotionally charged pause; right index finger rises unconsciously for added emphasis]

“. . . is a passacaglia!”

With that utterance, I choked up and held back tears. -In dreams, who doesn’t weep at the thought of an inspired, German genius concluding a romantic symphony by resurrecting a seventeenth century Spanish dance form?

-The normal guy sitting next to me, that’s who. He repays all my vapid effusion with a blank stare.

He’s right, of course. As an advocate, I’ve been an idiot. Abstracted from musical experience, my subjective emotions, formal analysis, historical knowledge, and classical music jargon provide no vehicle for listening, comprehending, or caring. The man neither hears what I’m hearing, nor knows what I’m knowing. He can’t tap my dopamine.

The Teaching Artist Nightmare Never Ends

So, the stranger tries to help by asking some well-meaning questions: “Yeah, but is it going anywhere? I mean, does it lead to something? Is there some kind of highlight?”

It’s my turn to stare blankly back.

So that’s it? For you, music goes somewhere? Symphonies revolve around a main event, some kind of climax that you can point to and say, “Whoah! How ‘bout that bass drum?!” The entirety of Brahms IV culminates in a marvelous passacaglia; did I not make that clear?!

“Well. . . kind of. Things really amp up at the golden section. But for me personally, the highlight is this flute solo. . . Um let me. . .”

I fumble around, looking for my score. (Doesn’t every teaching artist bring a reprint of the Vienna Gesellshaft der Musikfreunde’s complete Brahms symphonies to the dinner party?. . .)

I stop rummaging, realizing that I forgot to bring my music- a common occurrence in a teaching artist nightmare. Even if I had, notes on the page would have proven silent and impotent. My only recourse is to stand and sing the flute solo myself, finally channeling my passion into music rather than verbiage. I take a deep breath. . .

Mercifully, I awoke. I felt terrible.

Escaping the Teaching Artist Nightmare

This cartoon from the New Yorker nails it!

I felt awful because I had violated just about every tenet of effective teaching artistry. Instead of listening, I was talking. Instead of questioning, I was telling. Rather than cultivating a listener-centered inquiry into the symphony, I fell into the trap of focusing on my own personal enjoyment and interpretation.

Unfortunately, I drowned perfectly valid entry points with unexplained terminology. I conveyed information without engaging through actual musical experiences. Honestly, the guy didn’t really want to know why I love Brahms IV. On the contrary, he wanted to love Brahms IV himself.

I’m reminded why I give pre-concert talks with a fiddle in my hands and a piano at my side. I’m recalling why I make my learners conduct Brahms’s phrases, sing his melodies for themselves, or perform his complex rhythms as a group.

When you are teaching others, consider which technical terms you critically need to communicate, and which are superfluous and omissible. Ask questions of an artwork, rather than assuming that you already have all of the answers. Instead of forcing people into a prescribed experience, set them up to discover the highlights for themselves.

Let’s wake up. The strangers are listening.

-Doc Wallace, 9 February 2017

Dear Prudence – The Story Behind the Song

Dear Prudence – The Story Behind the Song


During The Beatles’ Indian sojourn, John Lennon wrote “Dear Prudence” as a serenade for Prudence Farrow, sister of actress Mia Farrow. Along with Mike Love of The Beach Boys and a handful of other celebrities, they all had traveled to India to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

After ten days, Ringo Starr left. (Apparently, the food disagreed with him. The desired spiritual results eluded him as well). Paul McCartney left the meditation course after a month to pursue other commitments.  However, George Harrison and John Lennon persisted for another couple of weeks alongside the Farrow sisters and several others.

“Dear Prudence, Won’t You Come Out to Play?”

According to Lennon, Prudence had withdrawn to her hut, meditating nonstop. “She’d been locked in for three weeks and wouldn’t come out, trying to reach God quicker than anybody else. That was the competition in Maharishi’s camp: who was going to get cosmic first.”

Worried friends selected John to reach out to Prudence and encourage her to socialize. As John puts it at the end of this early demo of his song:

“No one was to know that sooner or later she was to go completely berserk, under the care of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. All the people around were very worried about the girl because she was going insannnnnnne. . .So, we sang to her.”

From all accounts, Lennon’s simple serenade had a positive impact.

“Dear Prudence, Won’t You Open Up Your Eyes?”

Eventually, John and George left India, disillusioned with the Maharishi. (He was rumored to be womanizing.) Moreover, to John, the Maharishi seemed more interested in earthly wealth and fame than spiritual matters.

As a rebuke, Lennon wrote a scathing song entitled “Maharishi.” The lyrics castigate the Maharishi for breaking his own rules and for making fools out of his disciples. Out of respect for the positive lessons they had learned from him, George persuaded John to change the protagonist of “Maharishi” to “Sexy Sadie.”

“It’s Beautiful, and So Are You”

However, “Dear Prudence” remains unchanged from its original form. Lennon’s gently coaxing masterpiece reminds us that for a healthy spirituality, we mustn’t hermetically withdraw from the world. Rather, we must open our eyes, perceive, smile, and interact.

So that’s the message I shared with the audience in this set-closing psychedelic jam at the 2015 MWROC festival. Have a listen! Come out to play.

David Wallace: electric viola & vocals

Laura Kaye: vocals

Matt Vanacoro: keyboards & vocals

Sean Grisson: cello

Rob Bambach: electric guitar

Paul Ranieri: bass

Jason Gianni: drum set

Personas for Rachel Barton Pine

Personas for Rachel Barton Pine

I am thrilled to announce the world premiere of Personas, my five-movement solo sonata commissioned by violin virtuoso Rachel Barton Pine. Rachel premieres Personas at the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music on November 13th. In accordance with the festival’s sacred theme, Rachel has creatively programmed a recital inspired by Abrahamic traditions. The first half consists of Baroque works by Bach, Biber, and Corelli; in contrast, the second half features modern works by Yale Strom, Mohammed Fairouz, and myself. [Get your tickets here!]

Still life of "Ruth," the third movement of "Personas."

Still life shot at my kitchen table in New York City on August 8, 2013 while composing “Ruth,” the central movement of “Personas.”

Writing Personas was truly a labor of love, with a compositional process spanning a full two years. I challenged myself to realize the full potential of Rachel’s phenomenal musicianship and stylistic range. To that end, I drew from diverse musical reservoirs, including bluegrass, heavy metal, Hebrew prayer-modes and folk songs, bel canto operatic cadenzas, Paganiniana, and baroque counterpoint. Rachel is truly one of the few violinists who can navigate so many diverse styles and genres equally well.

In mid-October, I traveled to Chicago to meet with Rachel for an intensive 24-hour session of sharing, coaching, experimenting, and revising. Two days before my flight, I experienced a customary bout of “composer’s panic.” [“What if this piece really is awful? What if those chords don’t work? “Maybe I was thinking too much like a violist in this passage?”]. Silly me! In Rachel’s hands, every note easily surpassed my best hopes and expectations. One day of working together proved sufficient to refine Personas into its final form.

The Chicago skyline view from Rachel Barton Pine's music studio.

The Chicago skyline viewed from Rachel Barton Pine’s music studio.

I hope to see you at the premiere or to share a recording soon!  In the meanwhile, please enjoy a synopsis:

Personas

In August 2013, Rachel Barton Pine asked me to write “something of you, for me.” She was unaware that I was already in the process of adapting Nahum: An Apocalyptic Prophesy (a heavy metal instrumental for six-string electric viola) for her unplugged, standard violin.

After some excited discussion, we agreed that I would compose a five-movement sonata based upon Nahum and four other diverse and compelling Biblical personas. Because we both value inclusion, we agreed to make great women a priority.

The soloist embodies the characters’ personas. In some cases, the music parallels their actual messages or narratives. In others, the music projects an essence.

I composed the sonata in arch form: lighter, energetic outer movements flank dramatic, complex inner movements. In turn, the inner movements border an emotional, lyrical central movement. Personas commences and concludes with ecstatic rejoicing. Along the way, we encounter a prophesy of doom, a love story, and an intricate, suspenseful political thriller. Meet the personas:

Mary of Bethany:

Mary of Bethany is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus publicly raised from the dead. She is most remembered for sitting at Jesus’ feet listening instead of helping her sister prepare for a meal. She also anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair and priceless ointment, just days before his crucifixion. In this movement, the soloist projects the joy and reverie Mary finds in the presence of the divine and in knowing the power of resurrection.

Nahum:

Doc Wallace Rachel Barton Pine Chicago October 2015

Rachel Barton Pine and David Wallace after a successful 24 hours immersed in the score of “Personas.”

A few generations after Jonah, the Hebrew prophet Nahum delivers another message of impending doom to the people of Nineveh, capitol city of the ancient Assyrian empire. In beautiful language, but graphic and unsettling terms, Nahum foretells an ultimate end to the Lord’s patience with a violent, imperialistic nation. The prophet predicts a siege, a flood, and the bloody and fiery annihilation of the Ninevites. Unusually sonic in his imagery, Nahum’s oracle describes galloping warhorses, clattering chariots, clashing swords, ravening lions, wailing refugees, whirlwinds, storms, and widespread panic. The prophesy was fulfilled to the letter when Nineveh fell to the combined forces of the Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians in 612 BC. Our soloist channels the essence of Nahum’s prophesy through a four- string acoustic violin.

Ruth:

If the Book of Ruth conveyed only the courtship of Ruth (a young, expatriate widow), and Boaz, (a righteous, aging, wealthy, but solitary, childless man), its tenderness would still make it one of the great love stories of the ancient world. However, the book transcends two-dimensional romance. Some of the most moving and famous passages depict the deeply loving and faithful relationship between Ruth and her bereaved mother-in-law, Naomi. (Without intervention, both faced an impoverished and heirless existence.)

In this movement, the soloist portrays the story’s emotional drama as related through Naomi and Ruth’s recurring conversations. We hear Naomi’s perspective in the more troubled, dissonant passages; Ruth melodiously speaks through the warmth and assurance of A flat major. Improvisatory cadenzas give voice to changing perspectives, potentialities, realities, and dialogues.

In this interpretation of Ruth, Boaz does not speak directly. Rather, the majestic, penultimate, climactic section belongs to the narrator. The narrator proclaims blessings, marriage, and consummation, then traces Boaz’s genealogy (and the couple’s subsequent progeny) through several generations to King David. The humble tale ends royally, but in this telling, Ruth gets the last word.

Esther:

Still Life of Musical Score of Esther from Personas for Rachel Barton Pine

Still-life shot immediately after composing the final episode and coda of “Esther,” the fugal fourth movement of “Personas.” (April 18, 2015)

Esther, Jewish queen of the Persian king, Ahasuerus (Xerxes I), remains one of the most celebrated heroines in Judaism. With shrewd guidance from her cousin and adoptive father Mordecai, Esther uses her beauty, diplomacy, and rhetorical skills to save her people from a genocidal plot instigated by Haman, an arrogant, powerful noble.

The music begins with a modal, improvisatory invocation, which unveils important musical motives and introduces a three-voice fugue. The soloist chronologically relates the entire drama from Esther’s soprano perspective, balanced by Mordecai’s tenor and bass.

Ever-changing harmonies and keys transform the fugue theme as the plot thickens. At times, the soloist becomes more omniscient or gives voice to the thoughts and plans of Haman and his wife, Zeresh. Intervening episodes freely develop fugue material, as well as melodies borrowed from the liturgy and folk songs of Purim1.

At the crux of the story, Esther reveals Haman’s treachery against Mordecai, who had previously foiled a plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus. The king is outraged. Haman appeals for mercy, but instead, he is hung on the gallows he had been preparing for Mordecai. To conclude, the Feast of Purim is decreed, and the triumphant celebration of Esther’s extraordinary heroism continues to this day. . .

John, Son of Zebedee:

John: Son of Zebedee; son of thunder; brother of James; fisherman; prophet; disciple whom Jesus loved; witness to the Transfiguration; author of one gospel, three epistles, and the apocalyptic Book of Revelation. Saint John.

John’s writings (and writings about him) reveal him to be strong, gentle, powerful, mystical, ambitious, self-effacing, personal, paternal, earthy, cosmic. As a whole, his words encompass the terrestrial, the celestial, the temporal, and the eternal.

To capture John’s visionary perspective, the musical variations combine pyrotechnic Paganiniana with grassy southern fiddling. In essence, the soloist exults in musical realms that simultaneously span the natural and the supernatural. (Yes, the variations are partly inspired by decades of improvising on the popular Gospel standard, “I’ll Fly Away!”)

Although each movement can be performed individually, combined, the movements of Personas create a broader context and message. In the hands of a virtuoso, John: Son of Zebedee makes a rousing encore on its own. However, as a culminating movement following Mary, Nahum, Ruth, and EstherJohn drives home Personas’ central theme: divine hands transfigure ordinary lives.

David Wallace 19 August 2015  (Soli Deo Gloria)

1 Jewish holiday commemorating and celebrating the story of Esther.

Johnny Gimble: A First-hand Reminiscence

Johnny Gimble: A First-hand Reminiscence

UPDATE:

iFiddle Magazine issued a June 2015 Johnny Gimble commemorative edition. They asked me to film a video tribute where I shared a few memories and performed one of his tunes. -What an honor to share “Gardenia Waltz” in tribute to the great Johnny Gimble:

The Day the World Stopped Swinging

Today during Berklee College of Music’s graduation, Matt Glaser nudged me and shared somber breaking news: “Johnny Gimble just died.” In a split second, the world became a little less swinging.

Johnny Gimble and David Wallace; Waco, TX, July, 1996

Johnny Gimble and David Wallace; Waco, TX; July, 1996. Note “Roly Poly” chord progression on the blackboard in the Nashville number system.

Johnny Gimble: legendary fiddler; consummate entertainer; deft bandleader; witty raconteur; kind, generous teacher; family man. Only last week, Matt and some of our string faculty were enjoying and analyzing Johnny’s extraordinary “Beaumont Rag” solo from his “Fiddlin’ Around” LP (Capitol 11301, 1974).

After the second hearing, Mimi Rabson shook her head in admiration: “What a sound! We should require every Berklee string player to learn that!” Matt agreed: “It’s the greatest improvised violin solo on record.”

“Never Play it the Same Way Once!”

Though Johnny would have been tickled to see the joy his solo gave us, he would have shrugged off our urges to canonize it.

Johnny frequently summarized his improvisational approach by relating a life-altering conversation that he and his elder brother had when they were teenagers. One night, after a Saturday night dance in rural Texas, his brother took him to task:

As he was driving me home in his pickup, my brother said, “Johnny, I’m disappointed in you.” I said, “Why?! I thought I played well tonight!” He said, “Johnny, you played the same solo you played last Saturday.” From then on, I decided to never play it the same way once!

I spent many happy hours listening to Johnny Gimble, learning from him, jamming with him, and even teaching by his side at Mark O’Connor’s San Diego String Conferences. Ceaselessly, Johnny amazed me with the freshness of his improvisations and musical ideas.

Johnny Gimble, Fiddling Scholar

In reality, his fecundity was rooted in an encyclopedic knowledge of Texas swing. He could teach you classic riffs and solos that he had learned from many of his heroes and role models: Cliff Bruner, J.R. Chatwell, Jesse Ashlock and many others. By breaking tricky licks down, he made them simple and accessible. If you did want to learn a tune or a solo note-for-note, he would teach you.

Johnny constantly enriched and deepened other musicians’ knowledge. If you loved Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, he made sure that you also knew Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies. If you admired one particular “Beaumont Rag” solo, he made sure you knew about several others by multiple artists from different eras. Often, he would demonstrate them from memory.

When Johnny found out that I also played viola, the first thing he asked me was “Have you heard Don Decker? He played viola in T. Tex Tyler’s band. There aren’t a whole lot of records, but he was really good.” Johnny should know; he was one of the first fiddlers to add a fifth string to his fiddle so that it could encompass the viola’s deeper range.

The Ears Behind Johnny Gimble’s Distinctive Voice

Throughout his career, Gimble also distinguished himself with his voice. Fronting his own bands with lead vocals, he also sang in unison with his improvised violin lines and harmonized fluidly. I can’t recall a concert, class, or jam that didn’t include a healthy dose of Johnny’s singing.

Johnny Gimble knew his music theory. More than anything, though, his playing was rooted in his ears and in hours of listening, both on the bandstand and off.

At his 1996 Texas Swing Camp, Johnny taught an advanced group one of his formidable, double-stop augmented riffs. I asked, “How do you know when to use it?”

He smiled. “Just keep your ears open. You’ll start to hear it.” Surely enough, time proved him right. Hear that augmented lick for yourself at 2:36 in this video of Johnny playing “Fiddlin’ Around.

We musicians could easily spend the rest of our days studying Johnny’s music, striving for his impeccable rhythmic drive, and seeking to embody his generous, gregarious stage presence and personality. However, in many ways, we would be missing the point.

Johnny Gimble strove to be creative, not merely imitative. In full measure, he shared his musical gifts for the joy and the sake of others- not for his own gratification or glory. We should definitely transcribe his solos, teach his licks, and play his tunes. More than anything, though, we should preserve his legacy the way he lived it: jam, sing, laugh, share, teach, and never play it the same way once!

Thank you, Johnny!

Doc Wallace, May 9, 2015

Enjoy an excellent documentary on the life of Johnny Gimble:

And a vintage “Sweet Georgia Brown” video featuring yours truly. There’s certainly a lick or two from late night jams on this tune with Johnny at fiddle camps:

 

Berklee String Chair: A New Life

Berklee String Chair: A New Life

Berklee Logo Berklee String Department

It hardly seems possible, but it’s been a full semester since I moved to Boston and became Berklee College of Music‘s String Department Chair. Beyond the busyness and the whirlwind of changes, I feel a tremendous joy and excitement:

As Berklee String Chair, I serve and lead the most creative string department in higher education. I have so much to share, but for now, I’ll do it through a few media items:

Violist David Wallace Takes the Reins at Berklee College by becoming Berklee String Chair

Check out the third headline: Violist David Wallace Takes the Reins at Berklee College!

Strings Magazine Cover Story

The December 2014 edition of Strings magazine includes a cover story about my transition from New York City to Berklee. It’s rare that something another person writes or says about me brings tears to my eyes, but writer Rory Williams really got the story right. -That includes the embarrassing and difficult parts of my musical journey.

Life in the Berklee String Department

As I work to stay one step ahead of my students, I sense that my ear, technique, and rhythm improve each week. Through the walls, I even learn by osmosis as I hear amazing Berklee String teachers impart their wisdom.

Without a doubt, I look forward to Mondays more than I have in years. When you watch this four-minute video that we produced, you’ll know why!
Each week, new opportunities surface as I learn of new job responsibilities, or find myself faced with unexpected opportunities. (The latter has ranged from redesigning Berklee’s summer string program to being called to play “Songs in the Key of Life” with Stevie Wonder.)

Recruiting Berklee String Department’s Next Generation

Naturally, one of the major responsibilities of the Berklee String Chair is recruitment. You might enjoy a fun video describing some of my job responsibilities that I posted to my YouTube channel. Because this particular video targets my high school YouTuber audience, the style is quirkier and less formal:

Doc Wallace, Berklee String Chair, 16 November, 2014

A Surreal Drugstore Encounter with Hank Williams & Charlie Parker

A Surreal Drugstore Encounter with Hank Williams & Charlie Parker

Every now and then, my inner-city radar picks up something that is not quite right. In these moments, my subconscious throttles my awareness because the atmosphere is wrong. -Something is about to happen. Something peripheral is asserting itself. The circumstances do not match the circumstances; be ready to react!

Once upon a Labor Day. . .

I was picking up some odds and ends at a Rite Aid Pharmacy in Washington Heights right under the George Washington Bridge. As I compared per-ounce prices of various products and pondered whether Rite-Aid’s generic knock-off of Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser was truly as meritorious as its box proclaimed, my nervous system went into high alert. I felt particularly startled because nobody was standing close enough to cause it. A split second later, I realized why I had suddenly dropped a can of Ajax and looked up at the ceiling: it was the steel guitar.

Instead of hearing muzak, hip-hop, pop, salsa, or smooth jazz on the Rite Aid P. A. system, I was actually hearing a steel guitar. Not just any steel guitar, mind you- this was one of the most recognizable and beautifully recorded steel guitar licks of all time. My jaw dropped. Here, in a drugstore at West 179th Street and Broadway, Hank Williams Senior‘s original posthumous 1953 hit recording, Your Cheatin’ Heart, was filling the air.

Exhibit A: Hank Williams (NOT Muzak!)


At first, I didn’t quite know what to do; this wasn’t supposed to be happening. It’s not so unusual for me to dream musical incongruities, but I was certain I was perfectly awake. The music seemed slightly louder than usual for a drugstore; I glanced around to see if anyone else detected anything unusual. The women coming down my aisle browsed and conversed in Spanish as if they heard nothing but their own voices.  I stood still, listening, involuntarily and silently mouthing a word or two as Hank entered with his inimitable vocals:

Your cheatin’ heart 
Will make you weep
You’ll cry and cry
And try to sleep

I decided I’d better continue shopping before two security guards (looking my way) mistakenly decided I was the anomaly that demanded immediate attention.

I made some swift decisions about cleaning agents and moved to the next aisle.  A young Rite Aid stocker stacked Cheerios boxes and mumbled along, dropping syllables and consonants as he phonetically rendered the instrumental breaks: “Slee’ won’ come. . . Bearw! Bearw! Bearw!. . .whole night through. . .Hmmm cheatin’ heart. . . . will tell on you!” Although this made the scene a little weirder, something about the nonchalance and absentmindedness of his singing encouraged my own mind to drift again.

A Timelessness Time-Trip

When did I first hear this song, anyway? I don’t even know. It’s something that’s always been there like the sun or the moon or gravity. . . my father occasionally used to sing it and accompany himself on guitar. I used to spin a 45 RPM record of it that I either permanently borrowed from him or got from a garage sale. In Texas during the seventies, the song could still make an occasional appearance on the radio, at a pizza parlor, or on the country music shows that formed the mainstay of primetime weekend television.

Brushing aside an impulse to ponder the song’s sudden reappearance for any omens or personal relevance, I envisioned the music filling a darkened bar or a diner in Harlem almost sixty years ago . . .

Legendary be-bop musician Charlie Parker was notorious for pumping Harlem jukeboxes full of nickels as he punched in requests for Hank Williams tunes. His friends ribbed him for it:

“Bird, how can you listen to that hillbilly music?!  It’s so corny!”

“Listen to the words, man; do you listen to the words?!”

Parker died only a few years after Williams, but I’m sure he spun this record many times. I’ve never quite managed to connect the chromatic complexity of a chart like Parker’s “Hot House” with the earthy directness of a three-chord Williams ballad. Once again I struggled to build an aesthetic link from one to the other.

Exhibit B: Charlie Parker’s Hot House (Also NOT Muzak!)

But I couldn’t bridge that gap, nor could I imagine what Charlie Parker might have been thinking as he silently brooded over his beer and listened to Hank’s sad story unfold because I was becoming aware of some strange sounds emanating from deep within the Rite Aid stock room. Once again, I had the sense that something wasn’t right, but this time I couldn’t identify the sounds. I only knew that they were vaguely human.

Then it hit me: somebody is yodeling.  Badly.

The sporadic muffled yodels unpredictably joined the song at various intervals. Either somebody in the stockroom was loving the music and having a great time exulting in it, or he was mercilessly mocking it and Williams’ tendency to pass fluidly and frequently between his head and chest voice in the great American passaggio tradition of artists like Jimmy Rogers.

-Or worse. Maybe this whole scene was the brainchild of some sadistic manager who was using Hank Williams’ music for evil. I tried to stifle the image: a bound, blue-and-red-uniformed Rite-Aid employee is being tortured. He’s being forced to yodel along to an endless-repeat cycle of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” until he finally breaks into a chorus of “Please Release Me,” flees the building and drowns his sorrows at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, where he can listen to an Upstarts! group perform a sophisticated, Charlie Parker retrospective set curated by [email protected] Center, after which there will be absolutely no Hank Williams tunes playing on the nonexistent jukebox.

Somebody even deeper within the bowels of Rite Aid laughed and bantered happily. The yodeling continued.

Your Cheatin’ Heart Will Tell on You

Slowly, I realized this was not a yodel of duress. Whether exulting or ridiculing or merely groaning because he had to endure somebody else’s favorite music, the employee in the back was definitely having a good time. Like it or not, great music of any kind refuses to be ignored.

No longer on alert, I savored the moment. In twenty-two years of living in New York City, I had never heard any Hank Williams music in any store. It will likely never happen again, unless the guys in the Rite Aid stockroom have a deep and abiding love for timeless music. (Or a penchant for the quirky inside jokes that help us to tolerate tedious work environments.) Bring it home, Hank!

When tears come down,
Like falling rain,
You’ll toss around,
And call my name,
You’ll walk the floor,
The way I do,
Your cheatin’ heart, will tell on you… 

After the steel guitar tag faded away, a forgettable, more contemporary country song softly wafted through the P.A. system. Appropriately, everyone ignored it. The scene gradually shifted to resemble any other chain drugstore in New York City.

-Some brilliant producer needs to bring back the steel guitar and the yodel.

Happy Labor Day weekend!

-Doc Wallace

Biennial! – My New York Philharmonic Premiere

Biennial! – My New York Philharmonic Premiere

I am SO EXCITED that the New York Philharmonic and soprano Lucy Shelton will perform the world premiere of my orchestral song cycle William Blake Rhapsody! Part of the Philharmonic’s 2014 Biennial Festival, my concert is on Saturday, May 31st at 11:00AM at Merkin Hall.

Curated by Jon Deak, this free program features music from the Philharmonic’s  Very Young Composers project.  Emerging teen composers will have their own new works performed alongside premieres of their mentors (me, Daniel Felsenfeld and Richard Carrick).

I genuinely believe that William Blake Rhapsody has something for you. . . so, let’s take a closer look!

NY Philharmonic Biennial Rehearsal of “William Blake Rhapsody:” (l to r) Michael Adelson, Lucy Shelton, David Wallace

William Blake Rhapsody

William Blake Rhapsody embodies our struggle to find enduring love, joy, and faith amidst a broken world fraught with suffering. Blake’s poetry and imagery drive the work.

In each of the three songs, a soprano personifies, amplifies, and deconstructs Blake’s poetry with her melodies. (Yes, you heard that right: I’m a composer who actually believes that singers should have melodies.)

As the soprano projects our love, joy, grief, and woe, the orchestra conjures Blake’s poetic images with sound. Sometimes, we hear literal depictions of birdsong or infants. Other times, recurring themes and motifs symbolize Blake’s theology and worldview. Occasionally, the orchestra represents malevolent or benevolent forces acting upon the soprano’s personal Heaven or Hell.

Are you curious to know which poems I chose, and to hear how the music sounds? You can read the full program note and libretto here, but I also play and sing a bit of it in the “making of” video below:

The Making of a Philharmonic Biennial Premiere

Because I wanted to share some behind-the-scenes secrets, I filmed a “Making of the William Blake Rhapsody” video for my YouTube channel. Although I’m embarrassed to be singing instead of Lucy, you’ll still get a sense of the piece:

Lucy Shelton

Lucy Shelton, soprano & Elliott Carter, composer.

Premiere Musicians

As I mentioned, William Blake Rhapsody features phenomenal soprano Lucy Shelton. Through the years, Lucy has premiered and recorded works of Elliott Carter, David Del Tredici, and countless other masters. Longtime New York Philharmonic conductor Michael Adelson conducts a chamber orchestra consisting of New York Philharmonic members. To a person, everyone involved in the project has been a dream.

William Blake Rhapsody Eternity Manuscript David Wallace New York Philharmonic Biennial

Blake’s Manuscript for “Eternity,” the first song: “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the wingéd life destroy / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise”

NY Phil Biennial in the News

For more information on the New York Philharmonic Biennial, please enjoy this NPR All Things Considered broadcast. Since this festival only comes every two years, I really hope you’ll make it!