There are covers and then, there are Covers

I do a lot of covers. In a sense, I spend most of my musical life doing covers. Playing a Beethoven Symphony? Cover. Playing a 14th century Turkish Mevlevi song? Cover. Playing a piece I wrote? Cover.


“But you’re playing an original tune, not a cover,” you might say. Well, as I’ve been saying for the past couple of decades, “If you’re not improvising in real time, then you’re just covering yourself.” In other words, “Original” music can also be “Cover” music.

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New Music for Kids!

A recent piece by Kenneth D. Froelich at NewMusicBox has spurred some interesting discussion on my facebook timeline here. I posted it with the following quote from the piece:

Then she played Steve Reich for them.

The response was, in a word, astonishing. The students began tapping along and became actively engaged in their listening. They asked questions—questions!—about the music (which, in of itself is a pretty remarkable feat). Whereas Mozart was boring, Reich was exciting! It was new—something they did not expect, especially in the context of “classical music.” They wanted to hear more! Several times after my wife played them Electric Counterpoint, they asked for it again, even over popular music examples that she had played.

While Steve Reich might be a composer that we would expect younger students to engage with, what was more surprising was the response she received when she played them Pierre Boulez. Admittedly, the students reacted with confusion at first. However, as the music played they wanted to hear more. They wanted to know where this “crazy noise” was going. Once again, the music engaged her students on a level that neither Mozart nor Tchaikovsky ever did. They became active listeners. The music was unique and didn’t sound like “stereotypical classical music.” Like Reich, her students asked to hear “that weird Boulez music” again—many times over, in fact.

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on singing while playing the cello (part 5: singing in multiple languages)…

Jon Silpayamanant with Secondhand in St. Louis singing a song in Azerbaijan (March 10, 2013)
Jon Silpayamanant with Secondhand in St. Louis at 2720 Cherokee singing a song in Azerbaijan (March 10, 2013)

One of the questions I often get after shows is how I manage to sing in so many languages. Even for those who do regularly sing this can seem like a herculean task, but really it isn’t. Singing while playing doesn’t come naturally to me and I’ve never had the type of training that most singer/songwriter types do so I had to learn things as I go. The benefit to this is that it is really no more difficult for me to learn lyrics in English than it is in any other language–they are all equally difficult for me to do.

This applies to Conlangauges (Constructed Languages) too–doesn’t matter if it’s Ewok, Shyriiwook, Klingon, or any other. It’s simply about the choreography of the mouth (my next post will talk about Music as Choreography) which is really no different than the choreography of any other part of the body. You move or you manipulate your body in various ways to make a sound. Sometimes that sound comes from your body (e.g. your voice), and sometimes that sounds comes from some external device that your body is interacting with (e.g. musical instrument) — either way, it’s the movement of the body which creates the sound (unless we’re talking about Alvin lucier’s Brainwave Music).  Getting hung up on the end result can seriously compromise the understanding that it is all just a series of physical movements.

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Are music schools serving the needs of its students?

Tyler Thompson, 15, is a standout student in the Oakland-based Purple Silk Music Education program, which teaches children and youth - mostly from low-income immigrant families — how to sing and play traditional Chinese music.  More info here:
Tyler Thompson, 15, is a standout student in the Oakland-based Purple Silk Music Education program, which teaches children and youth – mostly from low-income immigrant families — how to sing and play traditional Chinese music.


I really do plan on getting back to the Aging of Orchestra Audiences issue–really, I do!  But I’d been having a stimulating and thought-provoking dialogue with some folks over at Eric Edberg’s blog in a post titled, Orchestra Audiences: Aging and Dying Out, or Just Shrinking?

Something I hadn’t thought about in some time, but especially as we’re getting an entrepreneurial push in music conservatories, was whether this is enough and whether its too late.  I’m almost wondering if this is just the latest effort of one industry (the music education industry) feeling the pressure to make itself relevant to its “customers” (i.e. the students).  Eric had said in response to my ideas about Diversifying Your Performance Skills Portfolio, that:

Some organically broaden their portfolios as they explore styles which don’t have the centuries of traditions that classical art forms do, because they are drawn to the music. I think we need to encourage students to do that; whether or not we need to actually teach them to do that, since many other genres are only semi-notated and have their own aural/oral traditions, is another matter.

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Modern Cello Techniques


Quartertone excercise from Modern Cello Techniques

Modern Cello Techniques is a fantastic new website dedicated to extended cello techniques by Chicago based cellist, Russell Rolen.  Of special interest to my blog readers who also are interested in Arabic and Turkish music, there is a section on Quartertones and a page with some samples from usage of them by Western classical composers.

Be advisd, though, that Western composers use quartertones and microtones in very different ways than you’d find them used in Middle Eastern or South Asian Music so don’t expect to find much that would be useful for pedagogical or learning purposes if you’re interested in non-Western microtonality.  Also, see my caveat about the whole issue of microtones here and here which help to explain some of these differences between the West and the Rest.

What’s really wonderful are all the exercises such as the one picture in this post.  As I slowly brainstorm how to start an Arabic Orchestra, I’ve only given passing thoughts on how to train the string players how to learn the ‘scales’ used in the music.  I actually hadn’t thought of approaching it in the same methodical way that our Western music training does in the copious number of method books for instruments that we have.  Mr. Rolen’s website just pointed me in a direction that I hadn’t thought about in this context and I may have to start developing some form of method book for training Western Classically trained string players in many of the Eastern Classical music styles!