Ask Marin Archive
Below are the questions from my past Ask Marin columns. If you'd like to submit a question, just email me at askmarin@BSOmusic.org.
From Joseph in Laurel, Maryland:
Does the BSO use electronic amplification during full orchestra concerts? I noticed microphones sometimes present and sometimes not. I have an impression I have heard both "acoustic only" and slightly "PA assisted" sounds at different times of the year and in different seats. Of course, with such a question, I am an engineer as well as music lover!
Normally for classical symphonic concerts, we do not use any amplification. The microphones you see are probably for recording purposes only. However, there are a few occasions where we will "lift" the choir or certain instruments when a composer specifies them to be amplified, but these occasions are few and far between.
From Ed in Millersville, Maryland:
At last year's performance of Holst's Planets, the choir was not on stage. I understand that was in the composer's directions. Where were they? Did this present any special challenges for you as a conductor?
Often composers will specify certain placements for musicians and/or the choir. Mahler's music frequently asks for instruments to be placed "from a distance" or "offstage." In the case of The Planets, Holst states that the choir should come from a distance, so we placed them in a stairwell. This location had some reverb and a door that we could close to simulate the long diminuendo at the very end of the work. The choir conductor followed me on a television monitor! It is very important to try different locations and we often arrive early with just the offstage musicians to test various options. You will LOVE the upcoming Circus Maximus program (March 18-21), which uses loads of offstage musicians.
From Joan in Ellicott City, Maryland:
For a child interested in playing professionally in an orchestra, what suggestions would you make to them? This would be other than joining youth orchestras, auditioning for all-state orchestras and seeking out learning experiences like music camps. At the college level and beyond, what can that person do to prepare?
The key these days is to know the repertoire excerpts that are required on auditions. However, I always insist that musicians know the entire composition and understand intrinsically how their part fits in because this knowledge comes through in auditions. Consistency, accuracy, rhythmic security and authentic musicianship are the main criteria. And, of course, practice, practice, practice!
From Rachel in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania:
What was your experience at the Tanglewood Music Center's summer program, and do you encourage aspiring musicians to attend Tanglewood and other summer music festivals?
I was a conducting fellow in 1988 and again in 1989, and it was truly a life-changing experience for me. Conducting the extraordinarily talented young musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center and studying with the great maestros of the day, including my hero Leonard Bernstein, was awe- inspiring. I do indeed encourage young musicians to audition for Tanglewood and other exceptional summer institutes!
From L.J. Kirk in Owings Mills, Maryland:
Had you been born in a parallel universe, which rock band would you have joined?
I was always partial to the Doors. I heard them in concert when Jim Morrison was still alive because my parents played a gig with them! I also love The Beatles.
From David Schultz in Rockville, Maryland:
I noticed that at some concerts, the musicians playing in the woodwind section change seats during intermission. Not just when adding or subtracting instruments when transitioning to the next work, but rather one person in the first chair during the first half of the concert and a different person in the first chair during the second half. How do you decide who will sit in which chair for each work?
We have positions for principal, associate principal and assistant principal musicians, and each person's job differs slightly. Most obviously, the audience would see them switch out positions at the intermission. This is similar to switching out athletes during a time out and serves the same purpose. It gives musicians a relief from playing and allows me to bring in top players for the most challenging works. Wind and brass playing can be extremely taxing on the muscles and lungs, so it is optimal to be able to rotate musicians to a certain degree. The principal musician makes the chair assignments in each section and then I approve them.
From Lizzy Phillips in Fairfax, Virginia:
How do you get "in the zone" before a concert?
Having 20 minutes of quiet, undisturbed time just to sit and focus seems to be the best path for me. I try to imagine or visualize the experience and review the tricky transitions of the pieces in my mind.
From Anonymous in Baltimore, Maryland:
I've never learned to read music and have a fear of failure. Is there a trick to learning?
If you think of reading music vs. reading words, which you have clearly mastered, there's really no comparison in terms of difficulty level. Music is much simpler compared to words. There are only 12 notes total! And those notes continually repeat themselves. Start with simple pieces—like Suzuki Piano Book I— and you can master this within a couple of weeks, without a doubt. Get someone to place a sticky note on each key of a keyboard for you and get started right away. There are also some terrific DVDs for starting out available on Google, so search for "learning to read music" or "learning to play piano." Let me know how it goes!
From Randolph B. Capone in Baltimore, Maryland:
Since the number of brass, woodwind and percussion musicians in a contemporary symphony orchestra are largely fixed, the difference in roster size seems to reside with the string sections. Irrespective of budget, what do you believe is the ideal size for a modern symphony orchestra, and is this something that will change over time depending on the style of music composed?
Actually, the number of winds, brass and especially percussion does change dramatically as repertoire enters the 20th Century. In Wagner's larger works, he even invented new instruments (Wagner tubas!) to add to the horn section. Stravinsky uses more winds and brass (including Wagner tuben) than anyone before in his Rite of Spring, written in 1913. And 20th and 21st Century compositions can employ up to eight or 10 percussionists, plus various keyboards, synthesizers, etc. So, in reality, the size of the orchestra is constantly shifting.
I believe that the size of the string sections must reflect that overall size demanded by the composer. So, for a big Mahler symphony or for Strauss' "Alpine" Symphony, I would ideally like 18 first violins, 16 seconds, 14 violas, 12 celli and 10 bassi. (I would start there and settle for 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, but negotiate from my ideal sized section). However, for a Mozart symphony that uses only double winds and two horns, two trumpets and timpani, that size string section would be hugely overpowering. In that case, I would go with a maximum of 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 or even 10, 8, 6, 5, 3. It is usually better to keep away from sections of only two players because it makes intonation and blend challenging. One or three seems to work better.
Part of the excitement of being a conductor for me is this continual morphing of forces—and the fact that our orchestra today is still alive and evolving!
From Joann in Hampstead, Maryland:
I am a vocal music teacher at an elementary school and an adjunct professor in accompanying at a community college. Sometimes my ears just get so "full" of music that I don't know what to do. Does that ever happen to you? What do you do when you have music overload?
I seem only to get my son's Suzuki tunes stuck in my head, and it makes me feel like I'm going crazy! I often fall asleep with one part of a piece in my head and wake up with another part of the same piece in my head. I imagine that I am working through the piece all night long. The Germans have a word just for this condition—ohrwurm—it roughly translates as earworm. If you find the cure, let me know!
From Tom in Gaithersburg, Maryland:
Many critics and observers have been predicting the imminent demise of classical music as an art of mass appeal for many years. From your perspective as music director of a major American orchestra, just how serious is the decline of classical music appreciation? What, if anything, should we be doing differently to increase public esteem for this art?
I think this same prediction has been around since 1940. Do "they" predict that sculpting, painting, writing and poetry will also cease to exist because they, too, lack a mass audience? Classical music is a vital, vibrant expression of the human spirit. Coming together to experience a concert is a phenomenal, transcendental, social and communal experience and music is a language that bridges all others. As humans we are born with a capacity to understand and be moved my music. What could be more basic and shared than that?
From JoAnne in Pasadena, Maryland:
I've always wondered whether conductors work out in a gym in order to be strong enough to stand and use upper arm movement for the long periods necessary to be a conductor. What's the answer?
I personally enjoy working out every day, but it's more of a mental release than anything else. Conducting requires focus and concentration more than physical strength. However, I find that working out vastly improves my focus and concentration on stage. For a better workout while conducting, I could weight my baton, I suppose!
From Chris in Adelphi, Maryland:
I have always wondered about the criteria that music directors use when selecting orchestral programs. I know part of it must flow from your own personal insights and delights, but I also suppose that it ultimately is a matter of economics. How you go about setting out the program for the year? How do you balance themes, the standard repertoire and new (or rarely heard) music in a way that still leads to a profitable BSO?
These questions really go to the heart of what it means to be a music director. For me, it's a balancing of all the things you mention mixed with a healthy dose of intuition and curiosity. I try never to underestimate my listeners, but still try to program with them in mind. As music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, there are institutional themes that we are setting out to accomplish as we move forward in the 21st century. Among those are access, inclusion, in-depth discovery, multi-dimensional experiences and shared interests, while continuing our primary goal of presenting world-class performances of great symphonic repertoire!
From Eric in Catonsville, Maryland:
As a newcomer to classical music, I would love to learn how to train my ear and mind to keep track of the various themes and motifs in a typical symphonic movement. I know that there are modulations or changes of key going on all the time in classical music and that they often coincide with a change of musical theme, but I find it hard to "hear" the key changes as they are happening. Do you have any suggestions on how to follow modulations in classical music?
Do you play piano at all? It might be fun for you to learn some standard harmonic progressions on the piano to start getting familiar with those (I, IV, V, I is the most common, for example). If you would rather learn by listening, Mozart and Haydn would be the best place to start. There are some basic formulae, but then their (Mozart and Haydn's) brilliance comes in breaking the rules, of course.
From anonymous in Montgomery County, Maryland:
Other than the Meyerhoff and Strathmore, what music venues in Maryland do you enjoy?
Those are the only two venues in Maryland that I have personally experienced and I love them both! I feel extremely fortunate to have two beautiful and dramatically different halls in which to perform.
From Wade in Alexandria, Virginia:
Considering today's overall concert programming, which orchestral music composers of the 19th and the 20th centuries do you feel are the most neglected, and which of their works would you like/hope to perform?
My number one candidate would be Paul Hindemith followed by Martinu, American composers Roy Harris and Walter Piston; surprisingly, Robert Schumann is always a hard sell, but I'm working to change that!
Have a question for Music Director Marin Alsop?
Email your question with your name and town to askmarin@BSOmusic.org.
Please note: you will not receive a direct response to your email. Check the next issue of In Tempo to see if your question was selected. In the case of overwhelming submissions, not all questions will be answered.