Ode to Joy, a song in the time of corona

Music can soothe, heal, and unite. The song that comes to mind is “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Unlike other symphonies, this one features the human voice. Its power is discussed in the documentary “Following the Ninth” – which I hope to get the link for everyone to watch BEFORE our Sunday global virtual jam session of “Ode to Joy” in its original key. See my blogpost.

Replaced by a string quartet

It began with a piano in London and ended with a string quartet in Boston.

It’s 8 am in London. My next door neighbor starts practising promptly. I have only met his wife who explained yesterday that he had a concert that evening. They moved into this neighborhood, what, 4 ? 5 years ago. Yet I never bothered to get to know them because one of them smokes, perhaps even both, albeit outside. The cigarette smoke drifts into my garden. And for that, I did not bother to get to meet, much less, know this virtuoso Russian concert pianist.

As the “Flight of the Bumble Bee” wears on, I find myself as the beneficiary of live background music. Ten years ago, I housed a young pianist who practised this exact piece every day while I made my move to the Netherlands. I could only imagine what my neighbors experienced through the brick walls.

Just last week, I unpacked my suitcase to the live background music of the classical guitar — Robert practising for his 3 gigs.

The third guitar concert culminated in Mauro Giuliani’s Theme & Variations. It was a piece I knew like the back of my hand. We went through it many times, the guitar struggling to be heard, the piano unresponsive and unsympathetic. After many years of tug and war, I finally relented.

The guitar cannot sound well if the guitarist has to force it to sound louder than the grand piano. Although it is absolutely possible, as Amsterdam-based composer Allan Segall proved in his first piece for piano and guitar, in most other cases the guitar has to struggle and the piano has to give in. The traditional way in which the duo is written assumes the piano is a fortepiano or some other subservient predecessor of today’s modern piano.

So Robert upgraded to a “concert guitar” — built to match the concert grand piano.

But I still had work to do. I had to constantly adjust to the volume and quality of the guitar sound.

There in Williams Hall at the New England Conservatory, on Tuesday 8th May, at approximately 9 pm, Robert performed Giuliani’s work with a string quartet. The four string players, by sheer nature of their instruments, brought out infinitely more color and texture than I could produce with 88 keys. Each of their four strings was a different instrument. They had the bows to help produce sound at different parts of the strings. They could pull, pluck, strum, hit, and more.

I sat back, resigned to my fate.

I had been replaced by a string quartet.

In the simplest case, my right hand was replaced by two violins and the left hand by the viola and cello. Thinking like this, every piano guitar duo piece can result in guitar and a string quartet or wind quartet or other combinations.

My eyes moistened as I thought of the years of preparation that led to this day. The guitarist can go on — playing solo with other instruments.

The pianist?

I’ve sold my Gerhard Adam grand piano in this Victorian cottage where I experimented with chamber music, house concerts, and eventually decided to pursue a degree in music. My Steinway Grand is sitting in a piano shop in Zeist, the Netherlands, waiting to be noticed, tried, and bought.

And I?

I have returned to where it all began. No piano. No audience. No house concert, but neighbor to a concert pianist who practises all day long.

C’est la vie.

Announcement is not an invitation

The difference between an announcement and an invitation is that the latter uses persuasive writing.

Just telling someone about an event is not going to make that person come to the event.

Persuasive writing is required.

One of the most popular blog posts on Concertblog is Concert Announcement or Invitation.

I have read press releases in passive tense. I will remain detached.  Change it to active tense and I might think it relates to me.  Make it personal and inviting, I just might think I am the audience.

Why are some musicians able to get people to go to their concerts and others aren’t?  One clue is in the writing. If this kind of writing is not taught at conservatories, it should be.

Getting people to come to your concert is one of the greatest skills to have. It is transferrable. How do you get people to come to an event you organize?  How do you fill a hall?

You won’t by simply announcing it.

You have to invite.

To invite, you have to be skilled in persuasive writing.

Impasse or interruption?

Classical music can be daunting in terms of how to survive as a musician. Anne Ku has created and produced concerts without a budget. Is it a mountain that cannot be changed or a rock that supports an existence?

Sometimes life feels like a rock in your way, refusing to move no matter how much you push at it.

Pushing against a rock in the Garden of Gods in Colorado Springs. Photo credit: J. Kormanik
Pushing against a rock in the Garden of Gods in Colorado Springs. Photo credit: J. Kormanik

My involvement in classical music appears that way. I have created new events, produced concerts to full-house reception, involved musicians, visual artists, and local businesses —  and continued to experiment with new ideas, new collaborations, while building new communities and relationships — all without a budget.

My last project — call for scores of multi-hand duets from living composers and performance / feedback in San Francisco on 15th May 2011 — is not yet over. I have yet to document the results of the sightreading, the performances, the feedback, and various details that I want to share.

My next project — piano house concerts and career management discussion panel in Utrecht, Netherlands on 1 – 3 July 2011 — needs to begin. I have booked organic wine tasting for that weekend. Two concert pianists are traveling from the USA to Italy, stopping in Utrecht just for this occasion.

Yet right this moment, after 2 weeks of traveling from Hawaii to Holland and a week of getting used to life on the ground again, I feel like doing nothing but play my piano that I’ve left behind since mid-October 2010 when my duo embarked on a concert tour of the United States to end in an experiment on that tropical paradise called Maui.

Could it be that the mountain of classical music is not an impasse but a mere interruption?

Perhaps I should consider music to be the rock that supports me while I tackle the rest of life’s challenges. Certainly I have been looking for a cause to serve — one that is greater than music itself, for music is not an end in itself but a means to a greater end.

Garden of Gods in Colorado Springs. Photo credit: J. Kormanik
Garden of Gods in Colorado Springs. Photo credit: J. Kormanik

How to book a concert tour (part 1): a peace of mind and the sizzle

How do you book a concert tour for yourself? If you are a classical musician who is not internationally famous, how would you get someone to book you for a concert where you have to travel a great distance to? And when you’re there, you don’t want to just give one concert. A concert tour is a journey of more than one concert. Here are the first two steps to the dilemma.

Back in early October 2010, I posed the circularity of booking a concert tour. It’s the chicken or the egg question. Do you book the tour first or the concert?

In other words, do you get the gigs lined up before you book the flights and cancel other commitments? Or do you book the flights before the fares go up and then hope that you can fill your tour with concert bookings?

Continue reading “How to book a concert tour (part 1): a peace of mind and the sizzle”

Holiday greetings: the multi-part e-mail saga

There are four steps in everything: content, method, delivery, recipient. Compare holiday greetings to concertising. Example of multi-part e-mail holiday greeting of a high school friend with five kids.

It is a real treat to receive a holiday greeting that clearly shows the effort put into creating it. From conception of the greeting to delivery, the sender goes through a multi-step process:

  1. what do we want to share? message, photo, music, art, story, video
  2. how do we want to create or package it? online format (PDF, e-mail, jpg, mp3, mp4) or offline (hard copy)
  3. how do we want to send it? e-mail, web page, youtube, post
  4. who do we send it to? mailing list

We go through the same 4-step process in our line of work: arranging concerts.

  1. what do we have to offer?  the programme, the repertoire
  2. in what format do we want to deliver it? concert, lecture recital, master class, workshop, individual lessons
  3. how do we want to publicise it? posters, e-mails, snail mail, website, social media network (Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter)
  4. who do we send it to? mailing list, people who have not received our emails or attended our events before

There are innovative ways to imprint your own ideas in each step.

In the past two days, I received a 6-part e-mail with photo attachments from a classmate I haven’t seen in since high school. Karen is one of the few people I know who has managed to create a satisfying career from family life. Besides being the wife of a medical doctor, she has also home schooled her kids. Home schooling requires that a parent take on an additional role as teacher. I’m guessing that it can be very challenging but also rewarding at the same time.

Karen introduced her five children in her 6-part e-mail in a way that made me want to meet them in person. The good news is — they will be coming to Maui in April.

Her life is a contrast from that of two other friends in Singapore. Both have five kids also but not home schooled. One is a stay-at-home mother. The other is a full-time career woman. I need to catch up with them to see how they are.

I suppose this blog is like a multi-part e-mail. I don’t seem to be running out of things to say. I do want to end the “holiday greetings” posts so that I can start blogging about how to organise a concert tour.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

A visit to San Francisco Conservatory

Note: in the upgrade to a new style sheet, the following blog post was deleted.

18 November 2010

We arrived in San Francisco last evening after flying from Denver towards the sunset for nearly 3 hours. It was the first time on this tour that we had to figure out how to get from the airport into town. Not that it was difficult, it was extremely easy to follow the directions to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit).

We were simply out of practice, after a month of traveling, getting picked up and dropped off at airports, and hosted by old and new friends we made along the way. You could say that we had gotten used to 5-star hospitality that included getting picked up, accommodated, fed, and delivered.

Today we walked up 9th street to Market and towards the San Francisco Conservatory.

A student sat at the front entrance ready to welcome and help us.We had checked on the conservatory website earlier and invited others to join us in the free concerts that evening. We wanted to be sure the concerts were taking place in that building.

“Hello,” I said. “Could you tell me if the guitar recital and the chamber music concert are here tonight?”

Esteban, a viola student, replied that they were and offered to take us there.

From the balcony level of the recital hall, we could see that a rehearsal was in full swing. The conductor was instructing his early music ensemble what was happening in what-seemed-like an opera or oratorio. We waited until he started conducting. The sound was magical.

It took me back to my days at the conservatory. I remembered it was a time of bliss — the pursuit of beauty and perfection. Life after conservatory was rather different.

Esteban took us to the concert hall, where a rehearsal of the New Music Ensemble was in session

That was nearly 6 hours ago. Soon we will walk to Max’s restaurant to meet a composer for dinner and then the concert at 8 pm.

I will go to the piano and strings chamber music concert while Robert will, of course, attend the guitar recital. Maybe he can lure some guitarists to come to our concert on Saturday — in a loft apartment on 10th street. Only 6 seats left. Booking information here.

Getting to Heerlen and Valkenburg

What happens if you can’t get to a concert because the earliest train gets you there after the concert begins?

It’s 13:00 Saturday afternoon in Utrecht.

“I have to leave. I’m late already,” the Dutch guitarist said. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning at 9 am in Heerlen.”

Heerlen is way down south, past Maastricht, near the German border. We had given our first concert in Heerlen in July 2003.

With that, the guitarist drove off to Maastricht where a flamenco project awaited. This is the second year of a project to capture a famous gypsy guitarist’s riffs in notation form.

He told me to catch the earliest train from Utrecht Centraal.

At 11:00 pm I checked the Dutch train timetable. The earliest train on a Sunday leaves at 08:08 and arrives in Heerlen 2 and a half hours later. The first concert begins at 10:00 am. I tried different configurations. Maybe he could pick me up in Maastricht? I would still miss the concert.

At 11:20 pm we spoke on the phone.

“I can’t get there before 10:30 am. You’re gonna have to give a solo concert,” I said.

“But they are expecting piano and guitar,” he protested.

“Well, I just missed the last train over an hour ago. So I can’t get there tonight.”

“I’ll come back then.”

“What? Drive from Maastricht to Utrecht NOW? How long did it take you to get there today?”

“There were roadworks. It took longer than usual,” he avoided the question.

“And then what?”

“And then we drive to Heerlen tomorrow morning,” he finished matter-of-factly.

“You mean you’re willing to drive 2 hours to pick me up and drive 2.5 hours back?” I could not believe him.

“What else do you want me to do? Cancel the concert?”

“Give a solo concert. You can do it. You have enough solo stuff memorised. Improvise. You’re good at that.”

“Well, it is an electric piano. The railroad tracks are being worked on. That’s why there are no earlier trains. I suppose these are good reasons why you can’t be there,” the guitarist reasoned.

“I can meet you for lunch before the second concert though,” I said more positively.

“Yes, I’ll pick you up at the Heerlen train station. What time is the concert in Valkenburg?”

“Two thirty.”

“Some more news,” the guitarist added. “Gaston wants to record me. The only time I have free is evening. I’ll miss the Egyptian dinner if I do.”

Gaston is our friend who returns to Belgium every two months to see his sweetheart and follow his passion: sound recording.

“You can’t do that,” I exclaimed. “You have to come back for the dinner. I’ve invited so many people. Your daughter will be there.”

Such is the busy life of a Dutch guitarist: piano guitar duo concerts, flamenco guitar transcriptions, solo guitar recording — all in a day’s work, not to mention his private teaching practice, his uberfaster and uberlouder guitar course, and a demanding wife.

The phone rang again.

“Honey, why don’t I come home now? Then we can go there together in the morning, as a duo.”

“It’s nearly midnight! You’re tired. Stay where you are. Get a good night’s sleep in Maastricht.”

“You know what will happen, don’t you?” He sounded faint. “We’ll never get another booking with Fenna.”

“On the contrary,” I said. “She should be grateful. How could we have shown up for the 10 am concert when the roads are blocked and the trains leave late? She would have had to cancel the concert! Luckily you are there. At least there will be a concert.”

“Yes, you’re right. We would have had to leave a day earlier and spend the night.”

“So, will you give a solo concert tomorrow?” I pressed on. “Have you got enough repertoire?”

“You know I have. I guess I am too tired to drive back. I’ll see you tomorrow for lunch then.”

Zeeland tour: 5 concerts in 3 days

Zeeland (pronounced zay – land) is the southern-west-most province of the Netherlands. This 3-day concert tour was arranged for us by Stichting Muziekinhuis, the foundation that places musicians in places where the residents are unable to travel to concert halls. It was a treat to have everything taken care of: concert venues, publicity, payment, accommodation, meals, etc.

Zeeland (pronounced zay – land) is the southern-west-most province of the Netherlands. On the drive from Utrecht through Rotterdam and Rosendaal, I asked Robert what Zeeland was famous for.

“The flood of 1953,” he replied.

Later we learned from our friend Annelies, whose grandmother had experienced the flood firsthand, that memories of the flood stayed with the residents and future generations. It explained why the Zeeuws preferred to sleep upstairs, not on the ground floor.

It was a good 2 to 2.5 hour drive from Utrecht to our first concert in Zeeland. We took a wrong turn towards Vlissingen and then backtracked until we saw signs for Domburg on the northwest coast of Zeeland. The minute we got out of the car, we felt the force of the September wind. Some buildings appeared permanently diagonal from the wind.

For a name as grand as that, Domburg was surprisingly walkable, with a population of 1,200 (last count in 2001). It’s famous for the special light that has attracted artists such as Piet Mondrian. After our concert, we headed for the beach.

Domburg by the North Sea in Zeeland, Netherlands
Domburg by the North Sea in Zeeland, Netherlands

Having grown up on an island within walking distance of a beach, I expected the water to be blue not grey and white. The North Sea was nothing like the East China Sea. It was fierce, unstoppable, relentless, and not friendly. I stared at the constant pounding of the waves and wondered how anyone would dare dive into it.

After a trek through the dunes and the beach, we decided to take our dinner in a restaurant with a conservatory. We sat among the German tourists and ordered the catch of the day.

Restaurant in Domburg, Zeeland The Netherlands
Restaurant in Domburg, Zeeland The Netherlands

This 3-day concert tour was arranged for us by Stichting Muziekinhuis, the Dutch foundation that places musicians in places where the residents are unable to travel to concert halls. It was a treat to have everything taken care of: concert venues, publicity, payment, accommodation, meals, etc. Thank you, Nico!

We drove east to Middelburg which dates back to 8th or 9th century. Even the so-called New Church (below) is pretty old. There was plenty of time to explore the capital of Zeeland the next morning.

New Church in Middelburg, Zeeland, The Netherlands
New Church in Middelburg, Zeeland, The Netherlands

I should write about our concerts in Domburg, Terneuzen, Middelburg, and Goes (pronounced hoos). They were all greeted with warm welcome and enthusiasm. The Zeeuws audience wanted us back. We will have to return when the weather is more conducive to more extensive concert touring and windsurfing.

As we packed to leave the House of Lombardij, the owner of which claims to be the first Bed & Breakfast in Middelburg, I thought how nice it was to go on tour. Unlike attending conferences or speaking at conferences where you meet out-of-towners, we actually met and conversed with locals. In other words, we were able to go into a community and make a difference through our concert performances. It was a different way to travel.

Could this be repeated elsewhere?

[Below: Robert Bekkers practises before the last two concerts on day 3 in Zeeland.]

Life in the USA vs that in Europe

Now that I’ve lived outside the USA for more than a decade, and in particular, on continental Europe for most of the past decade, I daresay that I have absorbed some of that European attitude, especially when compared to the way I was. I’m not sure if going to the USA will bring it all back. I notice the differences when I converse with newly arrived Americans.

My late friend, the London-based architect Ayyub Malik, often critisized me for sounding too American in my attitude towards life. He told me to stop trying to optimise and be a go getter. Just sit back and have some slack. Relax. These were not his exact words, but I concluded that’s what he disapproved of. The fast pace of life, the competitiveness, and the 24 by 7 existence was what he wanted to avoid when he turned down that job in Chicago many years before he met me.

Bekkers Duo with Ayyub Malik and Mayor of London Ealing, 30 May 2003
Bekkers Duo with Ayyub Malik and Mayor of London Ealing, 30 May 2003

Now that I’ve lived outside the USA for more than a decade, and in particular, on continental Europe for most of the past decade, I daresay that I have absorbed some of that European attitude, especially when compared to the way I was. I’m not sure if going to the USA will bring it all back.

I notice the differences when I converse with newly arrived Americans.

They are surprised that they can’t get from A to B by car. I patiently tell them that they can hop on a bus (which seems very foreign) or cycle (which requires renting a bicycle or buying one). “I’ll walk,” they say. But they forget what distances are when they are not used to walking.

American students complain of a lack of flexibility and attentiveness of Dutch administration. Having studied in the USA, I do admit that American universities do a much better job of ensuring new students are provided for. They certainly don’t need to sweat for accommodation after they arrive. It’s all taken care of BEFORE they arrive. It’s almost as if their needs are anticipated before they are voiced. In the Netherlands, I learned that if you don’t ask, you won’t get it. Those were the exact words of a student administrator at the Dutch conservatory where I studied for four years.

I explain the recycling rules. Americans that have lived in Germany nod in understanding. Those that haven’t think it’s novel to separate your waste into different compartments: paper, plastic, glass, refundable glass or plastic bottles, compost, and real trash. It does require getting used to. It does take up extra space before the weekly collection or trip to the depot.

I warn them to get their grocery shopping done before end of day Saturday. Unless it’s the first Sunday of the month, expect all stores to be closed and not reopen until Monday 11 am. Restaurants are even worse. I have starved myself trying to find outdoor seating on a warm summer’s evening, only to be turned away at 10 pm that the kitchen has closed. In some smaller towns the restaurants close at 9 pm. [This happened in Doorn on a Friday evening in July.]

One Dutch-American observed that the Dutch seem so much more organised than the Americans. “There are rules for everything, and the Dutch abide by the rules,” he said. On the flip side, the Dutch are not as flexible or spontaneous as the Americans. You could say that the way of dealing with uncertainty is different: rules vs flexibility.

As I plan how to travel from our upcoming concert in Newton, Massachusetts on 22nd October 2010 to the next one in Hampton, Connecticut on 23rd October, I’m amazed that no public transportation is adequate. “You’ll have either get someone to give you a lift,” advised an American friend, “or rent a car.”

Thank goodness gasoline prices in America are not $8 per gallon as we pay here in the Netherlands!