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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Musical Mentors

Earlier this fall, I had an assignment to write a musical autobiography since childhood for a class I am taking at Columbia. The hardest part of the assignment was keeping it to five pages, but I managed. Thinking about some of my earliest musical memories brought up a few tears, and I was really blown away by how a song that I remember from age 4 still sticks with me today. When I looked it up on YouTube, it was like I had just heard it yesterday... The following is my musical autobiography since childhood, and I would love to hear from anyone who has some early musical memories!

          My family lived in Florida for one year when I was four, and it was the first time my parents lived away from their families. My father worked a lot, and my mother and I met new friends and spent a lot of time with each other. Most of my early memories are of my mother, and include music. She loved singing and dancing, and she knew that it was important. It made her happy and playful, and when we spent our first Christmas season away from our family in Ohio, it made her cry when we listened to “I’ll be home for Christmas” on repeat. Even after the years of expert teachers and mentors, I still consider my mother the biggest influence on my musical career because she showed me the impact a simple tune could have.
            I am sure that my first musical memory came from the idea that music held some deeper meaning that I could not understand. I sat in the corner with my record player listening to Disney’s “The Small One” and practicing to remember the words and pitches. After what felt like hours to my four-year-old brain, I was prepared to perform it for my mother for critique. I remember vividly that she told me that I did well, but that hadn’t quite hit all of the pitches. Without knowing it, I’m sure my mother set me up for a life of practicing and wondering if I was getting it right.
            Years of singing in the car, around the house, and learning to waltz went by until I had any formal musical instruction. I must have been seven or eight when we got a piano in our home. My mother was my instructor, and we worked out of her mother’s piano instruction books that looked like ancient artifacts to me. After a short period of time, I was enrolled in a piano class at a local music school. I loved piano, until the teacher introduced transposition. With no explanation, we were told to transpose the piece we were playing on the spot, and it was that lesson that ended my piano career. I figured I was not smart enough to play the piano because I had no idea what transposition was. I still played at home, but took a new interest in the recorder that was handed out in general music. Sitting on the porch during the summer, I would pick out tunes I knew and read out of a book that came with the instrument.
            It was the next year that I went to fifth grade and joined the school band. I wanted to play percussion, but was told that only boys played percussion. The director told me to choose from the clarinet and flute, so I chose the clarinet.
            I liked playing clarinet a lot, and excelled very quickly. At the end of my second year of playing, I performed a difficult Concertino by Carl Maria von Weber for a school assembly. I came to my scheduled band period one day to find that everyone was gathering in the gymnasium for assembly, and my band director came to me to tell me I would be performing. I don’t remember being nervous, but I remember being confused and wondering if I was in trouble.
            The next school year, my mother took me to auditions for a youth band and orchestra in the area. These were great opportunities, and I was so happy to be accepted to both. I loved being in the groups, and I stayed in the orchestra until I graduated from high school.
            The youth band that I was involved in was called the Warren Junior Military Band. During the school year we would rehearse and learn a full program of music that we later took “on the road” to competitions around the United States and Canada. I made a lot of friends, and had a lot of independence. I’m still surprised my parents let me do this.
            The Youngstown Youth Orchestra is where I really flourished and grew as a young musician. The conductor was captivating, and encouraged everyone to do better and play from the heart. Without his guidance, I don’t think that I would have even had the idea to become a musician. Many opportunities came from my time in that orchestra, and many life-long friends were made there as well.
            My senior year of high school was full of solo engagements with youth orchestras in Ohio, a position as principal clarinetist in the All-State orchestra, and decisions about where I would go to school. I decided to stay home and studied at the small Dana School of Music with the second biggest influence in my musical life, Robert Fitzer. Bob was an amazing musician and person, and his impact was huge. I had never met someone like him before, and he seemed totally crazy in many ways. What I learned from him was a dedication to truth, in my music making and in my living. Letting small issues go by with tricks to cover them up was not an option. I left many of those first lessons crying as I tried to figure out the finer points of the staccato articulation. Giving only part of my self to an in-lesson performance was not acceptable. I learned how to be a musician with him, and I learned to be a better person through his teachings.
            Going to a smaller school was an amazing experience for me. I was able to explore many different kinds of music, and because of the fine faculty that I was able to interact with, I learned so much. I also spent a couple summers playing with touring festival orchestras. One summer I was a clarinetist and soloist with the American Wind Symphony Orchestra. The job was very demanding because the music was new and difficult. There would be times we would learn a program in just a couple days. That trip made me tougher and more realistic about what a career as a performing musician was all about.
            After my years in Ohio, I moved to Chicago to study with the legendary principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony, Larry Combs. The experience was exhilarating, and the year I was there was a blur of practicing and exploring my new surroundings. Mr. Combs suggested I take auditions at the end of my first year. I applied to two positions open for audition at the time, and I ended up winning one of them.
            Now as a clarinetist with The West Point Band, I have the opportunity to share music with people in ways that I never thought I would be able to. So much of what I do now involves reaching out to people of many ages. The moments that make the job incredible are when we play songs from all of the Armed Services and see the tears welling up in the eyes of old Veterans in the audience, or also when we play a children’s concert and the students can’t wait to get close enough to you to touch the clarinet and ask questions. Being able to reach people in this way is incredibly rewarding, and I am so proud that I am able to do it.
            My desire to play music for people and reach them at an emotional level came from watching the way my mother was affected by music. Being able to work with a great teacher like Robert Fitzer gave me the tools necessary to deliver music in an effective way. Without these two great mentors, I don’t know that I would have ever thought to become a musician. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

New Clarinet Music for My Beloved Teacher

I was playing with a summer festival orchestra when my friend and teacher, Bob Fitzer, called me to tell me he was sick. I was sitting in front of a fan in my very-hot apartment as he told me about the blood tests he was having done and the possibility that he had diabetes. We agreed that diabetes was manageable and he talked with me for two hours, first about a woman that he thought he should have married, and wondering if he made a mistake by not doing so. This was after I described to him a romantic situation that I was in that could only be described as complicated... He was not one to judge, except when it came to my articulation.

A couple months later as I was walking around the Lincoln Park Zoo on a sunny Friday after a day of classes, Bob called me to talk for a couple hours about the new bass clarinet he bought as I stared at the lions. He was going to be the regular substitute with the Cleveland Orchestra. I was SO THRILLED because I knew Bob was pretty much the best-clarinetist-ever... and for him to have settled down long enough to be recognized and play among some of the other "best-clarinetists-ever" was so exciting.

And a couple months after that... Bob called again to tell me he had cancer. I was 25, and the only person close to me that died young was my own grandfather. I didn't know what to say, or do... but we talked for a couple hours on the phone. He was so optimistic, like always. He was moving to a new house so he could have parties and people could stay with him. He reconciled with some long-lost people in his life. He was working on new projects and recorded with his friend, composer Johnterryl Plumeri.

Romance for Clarinet, Strings and Harp by Johnterryl Plumeri

The following is a link to a full length recording which is being featured on Boston Classical Music channel WGBH.

Johnterryl Plumeri's Romance for Clarinet, Strings and Harp with clarinetist Robert Fitzer

Bob went into this part of his life with energy and hope, and a strange happiness that was probably brought on by the people he loved coming together.

I took a few days off from school to visit Bob. We talked for a couple hours, he advised me on my career decisions and told me how great I sounded and how great I looked. This was the last time that I saw him, and the last time that we talked for a couple hours. I miss him every day, and I think of him every time I play the clarinet.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Baroque Repertoire for Clarinet

Most of us rarely play anything earlier than Mozart, except for the occasional arrangement.  And it's a common misconception that the clarinet doesn't have any baroque repertoire.  We do have a few baroque works, though, including pieces by masters Vivaldi and Telemann.

In this article, Eric Hoeprich argues for the use of historical instruments (and not modern clarinets) in Vivaldi's concertos.  You can definitely hear the historical clarinets in the YouTube recording above, but I can't say they whether they conform to Hoeprich's specific criteria.

However, I think this performance (below) of Telemann's Concerto is great. The combination of old and new - modern clarinets alongside harpsichord - is fascinating.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What I'm Listening to Today: Works by Paul Juon (1872 - 1940)

This year, my teacher introduced me to some lesser-known composers.  I hadn't heard of Paul Juon, but his works are new favorites.  Known as the "Russian Brahms," Juon wrote numerous orchestral and chamber pieces, including a Clarinet Sonata, Op. 82, and Divertimento for Clarinet and Two Violas, Op. 34.

His gorgeous "Trio Miniatures" starts this YouTube playlist.

Juon on iTunes, Arkivmusic, Wikipedia, IMSLP.

Monday, May 28, 2012

West Point Graduation and Memorial Day, a week of patriotic events for the musicians in the West Point Band!

 "This weekend, folks across the country are opening up the pool, firing up the grill, and taking a well-earned moment to relax. But Memorial Day is more than a three-day weekend. In town squares and national cemeteries, in public services and moments of quiet reflection, we will honor those who loved their country enough to sacrifice their own lives for it.
"Even as we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, we reaffirm our commitment to care for those who served alongside them--the veterans who came home. This includes our newest generation of veterans, from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"But on Memorial Day, we come together as Americans to let these families and veterans know that they are not alone. We give thanks for those who sacrificed everything so that we could be free. And we commit ourselves to upholding the ideals for which so many patriots have fought and died." - President Obama

SSG Chi and myself perform as part of the West Point Chamber Series
 There is some predictability to my schedule. I can be sure that all patriotic holidays will be supported by the West Point Band, and I can be doubly sure that the week of graduation events at West Point will be supported as well. Graduation week is a time full of hope and excitement at West Point, and it is so encouraging to see the matured, happy faces of the graduating cadets. I don't know all of them personally, but I know what they do and that we should all be proud of them. Much like last year on Memorial day, I would just like to give a "shout-out" to all of the military musicians (especially the clarinetists!!) but also to the new leaders graduating from West Point.  It is also an opportunity to share some of my favorite pictures from this past year!
Me and Placido Domingo at the Harmony Program Gala
Here's a cool video made by the West Point Band's publicity department that shows the Graduation Parade and Graduation Ceremony. The march used for these events is "Graduation March" which contains many West Point songs and songs that point to West Point traditions (you will notice the wedding march, which is a nod to the many weddings that seem to occur the day after graduation). While you're listening, keep in mind that we play this while marching... it never gets easier!

This Memorial Day we spent the late 
morning at West Point's wreath-laying ceremony held at Trophy Point on the grounds of West Point. This ceremony includes a 21 gun salute, a presentation of Taps by a bugler, a prayer, and the raising of the flag to full-staff. Charles Ives' Decoration Day is a portrayal of Memorial Day festivities (Memorial Day was known as Decoration Day until 1967) and includes Taps along with many marches and hymns. Though this morning's ceremony sounded nothing like Decoration Day, it certainly had the elements that Ives captured in his piece. 

The West Point Band at Trophy Point
It's a great job, and I am always happy that I can serve in this special capacity. I hope you all enjoy your long weekend and never forget to think about the people that gave their lives for our country! 

For love of country they accepted death...  ~James A. Garfield

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Interview with West Point Band Clarinetist, Diana Cassar-Uhl

Sergeant First Class Diana Cassar-Uhl, from Monroe, New York, came to the West Point Band in September of 1995. She holds a Bachelor of Music in performance from the Ithaca College School of Music. Diana is leaving the West Point Band after 17 years of service to finish her master's degree in public health at New York Medical College and pursue a second career - this one in maternal and child health. You can read a lovely article about Diana's career on the West Point Band's Facebook page. With her departure, I thought it would be great to hear her responses about her time in the military as a clarinetist. 

KLM - When did you join the military and where have you been stationed?
DCU - I enlisted in the Army in July of 1995 (before current high schoolers were EVEN BORN, I was recently reminded!).  After 9 weeks at Fort Jackson for basic training, I came directly to West Point, where I've served my entire career.  While I didn't have any other duty stations, my Army career has enabled me to see parts of the U.S. I wouldn't have ever seen otherwise.  And parts of Texas I sometimes wonder if ANYONE has seen. ;)

KLM - Where were you before you came to the military?
DCU - I was at the Ithaca College School of Music, wrapping up the 8th of what was supposed to be a 9-semester double degree in clarinet performance and music education.  I only had student teaching left, which terrified me.  I won my audition for the West Point Band on April 27th and got some waivers so I could graduate with just the performance degree 2 weeks later. 

KLM - What is your favorite basic training memory?
DCU - Oh my gosh.  It's so funny how, 17 years later, all of the memories seem like favorites even though during the experience, I cried every single day (true!).  I'd have to say my favorite memory was when the Drill Sergeants brought us all -- the whole 240-member, mixed-gender company -- out onto the drill pad outside our barracks about an hour after lights out, to punish us for some errant infraction.  We had been in the "front-leaning rest" position for awhile, and the guy in front of me had his butt up in the air to shift some weight onto his legs.  Whether intentional or not, he "tooted" right into my face!  I started yelling at him, "dammit, that's disgusting!" The Drill Sergeant wanted to know what all the commotion was in 3rd squad.  I yelled, still in the front-leaning rest position, "Drill Sergeant, he farted in my face and didn't even yell 'back blast area clear!'" The entire company dissolved in laughter, including, to my great fortune, the Drill Sergeants.  We were all dismissed and sent back to bed.  
The "front-leaning rest." Not actually a rest position...
KLM - What did your family and friends think when you joined the military?
DCU - I was the last person anyone would have imagined would (or could) join the Army.  My father had served in Vietnam and my grandfather was a career Reservist/National Guardsman in the Army and the Navy, but Diana in the Army was such a foreign concept.  Some of my classmates turned up their noses at my choice to join a military band instead of pursuing an orchestral career, but I knew since I was 11 that I wanted to be in the West Point Band, so those who were closest to me were proud of me and very supportive.  My best friend moved to London after we graduated from Ithaca, but she wrote to me every single day I was in basic training, and was even at my final concert last week. Her pride in me was most obvious, though, when we had a car accident in a blizzard in 1996.  We were stuck on the side of the road and needed to change a flat tire.  A nice man stopped to offer help, and my best friend yelled "she doesn't need your help!  She's in the Army!"

KLM - What has been your most memorable clarinet moment in the military?
DCU - I only get to pick one?  I've gone over the moon with joy for music more times than I could ever count in my career.  Getting to play Molly on the Shore at my high school, for classmates and teachers I hadn't seen in years, under the baton of my most inspirational teacher (my high school band director, John Lynch), at my final concert in uniform was pretty spectacular ... especially once I got to the end and hadn't squeaked, missed any notes, or run out of air on the solos. :) My husband (a trumpet player in the band) arranging for our kids to bring me flowers on stage turned that "clarinet moment" into a "life moment," which was a really appropriate segue since one of the major reasons I'm leaving music is to be more available to my three young children than our job permits.

KLM - On an average week, what do you do at work?
DCU - Haha Kristen, you know there's no such thing as an average week at our job! :)  
Over the years, I've gotten to do so many things.  Earlier in my career, I would have described the work as seasonal -- outdoor summer community concerts, fall football and parade season, winter chamber music, spring parades and concerts, all sprinkled with various extra duties and ceremonial events like funerals and retirement ceremonies. A typical week would have included large and small ensemble rehearsals and some extra duty tasks, plus a lot of practicing and physical training -- I did a lot of distance running earlier in my career. In my last few years, I spent a lot of time managing projects for Education Outreach and writing/editing for the band's Publicity section, as well as (hopefully) preparing people to take my place in those jobs.  

KLM - Would you encourage interested clarinetists to join the military?
DCU - In 1995, I would have joined ANYTHING that would let me play my clarinet full-time and keep myself fed, clothed, and housed!  There was truly nothing else I would ever have done than play the clarinet.  For clarinetists who feel that way, and who love wind ensemble music (which I did), the military is an extremely viable and welcoming place to work and grow.  I would absolutely encourage interested musicians to speak candidly to members of military band sections they might be interested in auditioning for someday, and ask lots of questions. The life of a military musician is so rich and rewarding, but really find out what you're getting into before you make your decision, and make sure the military lifestyle fits your personal goals, too.  Many of the benefits I received as an Army musician were not ones I expected -- they weren't financial or other entitlements, they were gifts I didn't even know I wanted. 

KLM - What is the weirdest thing you do at your job?
DCU - If someone had told me 17 years ago that several times a year, I'd get a call at around 8:30 at night from a colleague directing me to report, in uniform, absurdly early the next morning to my workplace so I could ... watch (I mean, observe) other (female) colleagues produce a urine sample (pee in a cup) ... I would have laughed heartily and told him he was insane.  And yet ... *sigh*  That's one thing I'm not gonna miss.  

KLM - What are your after military plans? 
DCU - I would never have imagined I'd feel as passionate about anything as I did about the clarinet, but I'm incredibly blessed with a calling to a second career.  I'm about halfway through a Master of Public Health degree at New York Medical College, which I got into through my desire to influence policy and protocols in maternal and child health.  Being a mother in this great country shouldn't be as difficult as it is for so many women, and I'd like to play a part in changing the status quo.  As I get through the degree, I'm discovering a crazy interest in research -- I'd like to have the chance to study specific populations of mothers and their babies and find answers for problems like colic or rashes, and use those answers to drive policies and protocols.  I guess the only thing that's changed is now, I want to DO the research that can be used to advise policy where before, I thought I wanted to present other people's research to the policymakers.  Time will tell whether I prove myself worthy of the opportunity to sit at those tables I'm aspiring to.

KLM - Do you have any regrets about joining the military?
DCU - Not a single one.  Being in the military changed my life significantly, especially in the area of physical fitness.  Had I not gone through basic training, I'd never have challenged myself to achieve some of the things I've pushed myself to do since, like running half-marathons and a marathon.  Long after I'm off the Army payroll, being physically fit in my 20's and 30's will continue to pay me dividends, and I'll always know how to take good care of myself.

KLM - It seems like everyone was in a military band at some point, and there's always that gossip about which great symphony players were in the military. Who is someone you know that was a military musician at some point?
DCU - When I started running, I was a huge fan of "The Penguin Chronicles" written by John Bingham.  He wrote the last-page article in Runners' World magazine about those of us running at the back of the pack, which is where I always am in a road race (right in front of the police car, there I am!) ... I wrote to him once to thank him for inspiring me, and was surprised to learn that he had been a trombone player in the U.S. Army Band! 

KLM - What is the number one question you get asked by the general public after a concert? (For example: so you are IN the army?)
DCU - Even at the old age of 39, I still get asked when I'm going to graduate from West Point.  It usually takes me a few seconds to get over my excitement at having been mistaken for a college student before I can explain that the band is comprised of active duty Soldier-musicians who are stationed at West Point, not Cadets.   
KLM - Do you feel any more or less patriotic than you were before being in a military band?
DCU - Oh, heavens, way more.  Like I said before, I was the last person anyone would have imagined joining the Army, and now, the jobs I want to do in public health are in the government sector -- I truly want to serve America.  I think I feel this way because of the Veterans I've seen over the years, at concerts.  They are so moved by their service song or by God Bless America.  It's really inspiring.  And where else could a woman like me leave one passion-driven career and stand a chance at another?  

KLM - What is a question you would ask other military clarinetists?
DCU - From 2000-2007, I did ask lots of Special Band clarinetists questions -- I founded and wrote the column "Clarinetists in Uniform" for The Clarinet.  I was always most interested in the exciting on-stage activities of my colleagues.  Now, maybe I'm more reflective or something, but I'd love to hear more about what my colleagues do when they're NOT playing clarinet ... what makes them happy, other than music? 

KLM - (NERD ALLERT) What is your favorite note on the clarinet?
DCU - I love playing in F major and Ab major ... so all those notes. :)  And I don't like having to go over altissimo A.  Ever.   

KLM - What is your most memorable musical moment?
DCU - I was once totally transported by the first statement of the second theme of Academic Festival Overture, played by the New York Philharmonic, when I was a teenager.  It was so lush and all the bows were moving in perfect synchrony ... I'll never forget it, and I knew I wanted to be part of something like that.  From the stage, I'd have to say it was during my solo recital in 2006, when I finally got to play Appalachian Spring for 13 instruments -- the first statement of "Simple Gifts" was so poignant for me at that point in my life. I barely held myself together but my emotions really came out in the music.  I'll never forget how I felt either time.

KLM - If you could magically wake up and play any kind of music, what would you do?
DCU - Rhapsody in Blue. Oh, I did it once, in college, but it was a massacre.  For real.  And I feel invalid as a clarinet player because of that one darned piece ... so to magically wake up and be able to play Rhapsody in Blue would be awesome, and would satisfy 3 decades of feeling marginally adequate! :) 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

What I'm listening to today - Cumbias!

It's been awhile since I posted a "What I'm listening to today." Today I am listening to Cumbias Y Gaitas Famosas de Columbia. I happened upon this recording when I was trying to learn more about Latin American dances, and I just liked it. It's weird and obnoxious, but I just like it.

Cumbia is a music style popular in Latin America, most notably in Columbia and Panama. It is a musical and cultural fusion of Native Columbians, slaves brought from Africa, and the Spanish during colonial times. Cumbia began as a courtship dance among the African slave population, and was later mixed with European instruments and musical forms. (Thanks Wikipedia!)


Sunday, March 25, 2012

EPIC doesn't even begin to describe it!

If you've been following Clarineticus Intergalacticus, you will remember an earlier interview with clarinetist Tim Sutfin. In a few weeks, Tim will be premiering Scott McAllister's newest piece for clarinet and piano: Epic

Commissioned in 2011 by a consortium of 11 of the country’s top clarinetists, American composer Scott McAllister has written the single longest solo work for clarinet and piano, aptly entitled: Epic. The piece draws inspiration from McAllister’s life experiences as a clarinetist and composer, including traditional warm-up exercises, orchestral excerpts, composer Aaron Copland, clarinet legend Robert Marcellus, folk singer Richie Haven’s High Flyin’ Bird, and even the late pop icon Michael Jackson. This will certainly be a performance worthy of the title Epic, and is not to be missed!
SSG Timothy Sutfin, clarinetist with The U.S. Army Concert Band, will be the first member of the consortium to perform this piece publicly in its entirety. He will be joined by SSG Yalin Chi, pianist with the U.S. Military Academy Band at West Point. 

The world premier performance will be give at Brucker Hall on Historic Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia on April 10th at 7:30 PM. If you are unable to make it to Arlington, catch the live audio-stream at www.usarmyband.com