I’m a drum soloist…?

Jon Silpayamanant with Raks Makam, Sabah (director of the Bellydance Superstars) and members of Crescent Moon Dance after our performance in Louisville during the Club Bellydance tour

So I’ve technically done my first drum solo now.  Sure I’ve drummed for dancers for years and have played for who knows how many dancers, but tonight (or technically, last night) I’ve performed my first honest to goodness drum solo.  Sure, I’ve been in settings where I’ve played back up for another drum soloist (and I understand that the idea of a ‘drum solo’ can be confusing when it can include more than one musician and/or dancers, but indulge me for a bit) and have drummed ‘solo’ in workshop settings for dancers playing rhythms as a teaching tool for workshop attendees.

But never as a soloist in a performative setting.

The biggest irony here is that the many years of playing drums included mainly playing Egyptian tabla or other Middle Eastern drums for mostly bellydancers (the occasional gig playing with Greek bands or my Balkan band, Kermes for Greek folk dancers and Balkan folk dancers notwithstanding).  What is ironic is that my first drum solo happened to be on the doira, for Uzbek dance.  And it looks like most of my drum soloing will include many more Central Asian styles–the next piece that Raks Makam will be working on is a Bukharan doira solo.  I’m stoked for this and so looking forward to learning more about all this wonderful Central Asian music!

Most importantly, I just love working so closely with dancers.  Really I love working with any collaborators in general, but especially non-musicians, and most especially with artists in an art form that is so closely tied to music as dance is.

Being a soloist (musician) means a couple of obvious things.  No one else is responsible for learning the music but me, which means that while I have no one getting in the way of picking up a new tune.  The other thing is I also have no one else to rely on if things go awry musically.  I’ll trade the one pressure for the other in a heartbeat!

Ok, I must get some sleep before heading up to Chicago to play some Klingon music!

on singing while playing the cello (part 2)…

Jon Silpayamanant singing with il Troubadore at Tribal Revolutions Bellydance Festival in Chicago (June 2010)

This is a topic I explored a little bit in a past blog post but what got me thinking about it again was an experience during a lesson I was giving last week.

One of my students, who also plays in a rock band (electric bass guitar), brought his bass to the lesson as it was left in the student’s parent’s car after a gig the student did the previous night (the other parent was picking the student up after the lesson, hence my office being the transfer space). Yes, I’m being deliberately vague with the student and parent’s gender in the interest of protecting privacy.

We talked a bit about the band the student plays in and I asked about the other members (drums, guitar, vocals–standard instrumentation). But I remarked about the vocalist being, well, a vocalist but not also playing an instrument. The student says that occasionally the drummer won’t be able to make it rehearsals or gigs and the singer, who can also play guitar and drums will sometimes drum while singing–doing it with some difficulty.

So we started talking the mechanics of singing while playing and I eventually asked whether the student has tried to sing while playing to which the response was yes while also indicating difficulty doing both at the same time. The student said inevitably either the cello line or the vocals will be lost.

So I ended up giving some pointers in singing while playing. I talked about the levels of difficulty between doing pizzicato or bowing while singing and that for some types of playing the difference is negligible (e.g. repetitive rhythms or ostinatos) while doing sustained bowing of melodies or harmonies while singing a sustained line can often be the most difficult of all. The student only seemed mildly interested until I demonstrated all the differences with songs I sing and play–after the first tune, the student’s eyes grew wide in what was, for all intents and purposes, slack-jawed awe.

Continue reading “on singing while playing the cello (part 2)…”

Are Orchestra Musicians Replaceable?

Drew McManus pointed out a piece written by Michaela Boland which had some interesting quotes by Greg Sandow with whom I don’t necessarily agree on many points though he is one of the critics of the current status quo of Classical Music in the US.

Among the orchestras that have shut their doors and dismissed players there are some groups that have survived due to radical restructuring, which is where Sandow sees the future of the industry. Columbus Orchestra, by way of example, staved off closure in 2008 and retained 53 full-time players by reducing salaries by 27 per cent. Detroit Symphony Orchestra is engaged in similar talks with players.

Sandow argues that players in America’s top orchestras have traditionally been well paid, with salaries above $100,000, and the cuts are having an invigorating effect. “It’s interesting to talk to young musicians about this; they don’t see it as a problem, they’d consider themselves lucky to get any of these positions,” he says.

Historically, however, because of the status and the good pay, few of them could secure such jobs.

Sandow says that if the Philadelphia Orchestra were to suddenly discharge all its musicians and replace them with young players on contract, what might be lost in polish could easily be made up for in pizazz.

“I wonder if that wouldn’t be more exciting to hear,” he says. “It might really surprise people.”

This echoes some things said by Eric Edberg during the Detroit Symphony Orchestra debacle

I’m living in New York this semester, and have met a number of young free-lance players, some of whom are graduate students at big conservatories.  Guess what?  Most have little if any sympathy for the DSO players (who have not managed to successfully reframe the conversation and are losing the PR war, even with music students). They love all sorts of music in addition to classical music.  Plenty find traditional symphony (and other) concerts boring.  There are plenty of classical-change advocates, in various stages of self-awareness, among them. Right now, they have little or no work.  Student and, in many cases, instrument loans to pay.  Fantastic players.

Many see the union as the problem (even if they’re not going through one of those college-age Ayn Rand phases).  The players have been successfully characterized to/construed by them as greedy, selfish, and/or out of touch.  A lot of these incredibly-accomplished young players (and I bet there are bunches more in Baltimore, Bloomington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, LA,Miami,  etc.) seem excited at the idea of going to Detroit to work in a “new model” symphony.

While Unions may or may not be the problem (cf. Michael Kaiser’s recent post, Are Unions to Blame?) there is this sense that for good or ill, with younger musicians (many of whom are, as Eric says, struggling as freelancers much less in this economy) who haven’t matured in the Union environment, few are going to have as much sympathy as those musicians who rely on collective bargaining to sustain their livelihood.

On the other hand, a question I’ve been exploring–or rather, I could reframe the title of this blog post in a different way–is, “Are Western Orchestras Replaceable?”

Continue reading “Are Orchestra Musicians Replaceable?”

Happy 1390!

Yes, it’s Nowrūz–the Persian New Year.  Last year I had the pleasure of playing a Nowrūz party for a Bahá’í congregation.  The best part of that–other than getting to eat traditional Persian food and desserts (yum)–was getting to hear two fabulous Persian Classical musicians.  In MUNCIE, Indiana of all places!  Here’s a short video I took of Ehsan and Behrouz Kousari (Santour and Zarb, respectively):

il Troubadore ended the celebration, but I could have just listened to the Kousari brothers forever!  It turns out that Ehsan Kousari is also a Santour builder–there’s a short documentary of him at the EVIA (Ethnographic Video for Instruction & Analysis) Digital Archive in a collection titled “Indiana Musical Instrument Makers and their Craft: Field Interviews and Demonstrations (2005).”

Continue reading “Happy 1390!”