Brant

The Holy Sextet (Part 2) — by Brant Taylor

Part 1 began an exploration of three bow variables that—in addition to the three well-known concepts of weight, speed, and contact point—make up a sextet of basics that should be known and practiced to maximize your control over the string with the bow.  We discussed the first and most important, bow angle, in Part 1. The remaining two variables may seem relatively minor, but they are by no means unimportant. If practicing means attempting to find solutions to the challenges of successful instrumental control, you should attempt to understand every potential reason for success or failure with the bow. FLATNESS OF HAIR, or how much of the hair makes contact with the string. Many cellists hold the bow with the stick tilted up (toward the fingerboard) to some degree. This means that [...]

The Holy Sextet (Part 1) — by Brant Taylor

Think back to when you were shown how to use the bow to successfully produce different sounds on the cello. In all likelihood, you learned that there is a trio of "variables" that are combined in certain ways to achieve a desired result: WEIGHT, or how much of the right arm's heft is placed into the string from above (I prefer the term "weight" to "pressure," though they refer to the same idea). SPEED, or how quickly the bow is moved laterally. CONTACT POINT, or where the bow hair makes contact with the string relative to the bridge (or fingerboard). While each of these variables is critically important to sound production, the complete recipe for successfully controlling the string with the bow involves more. There are at least three other basics [...]

When the Music Stops — by Brant Taylor

For those of us for whom a musicians’ work stoppage in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was something we’d read about in histories of the orchestra but had never experienced in real life, the e-mail message we received last Saturday was a bit of a shock: we were on strike. Much of the "what" and "how" has already been disclosed elsewhere by both sides, so I won't go over that here. Fortunately, the work stoppage was short-lived—about 48 hours—and the musicians have now ratified a new contract that will allow our season to proceed without further disruption. Any orchestral musician who has been through tough negotiations will agree that they’re strange times.  An orchestral organization is tiny compared to the global business corporations in the for-profit world that deal with large [...]

What You Did This Summer — by Brant Taylor

We are now in mid-summer, and countless musicians of all types are at various summer music festivals and camps engaging in musical activities that likely differ in some way from the artistic lives they lead during the rest of the year.  Whether a student or a professional, a change of scenery and the opportunity to meet and collaborate with new colleagues has many benefits.  Certainly, for those of us who spend the academic year engaged primarily in one musical activity, summer is a valuable opportunity to do something different. For professional musicians, the tendency to be defined by their "main" musical job or pursuit is strong.  A quick look down the faculty roster of the Mimir Chamber Music Festival, from which I just returned to my full-time position with the [...]

Playing Audition Excerpts: Yes, the Devil’s in Them — by Brant Taylor

Although the collection of excerpts on an audition repertoire list may seem arbitrary, each one has a purpose: giving the audition candidate an opportunity to demonstrate certain things about his or her playing and artistry. Audition success involves showing a command of certain basic elements—such as rhythm, dynamics, intonation and articulations—as well as conveying a nuanced understanding of the music and the composer. A well crafted audition list will include excerpts that emphasize each of these elements, and a candidate’s ability to demonstrate control and understanding of them will determine his or her chance for success. Let's put these goals into concrete terms using a common cello audition excerpt as an illustration—the opening of the second movement of Brahms' Symphony No. 2:   Brahms Second Symphony, 2nd Mvt. [...]

What’s the Passcode? — by Brant Taylor

In the reader chats I've hosted on this website, certain discussion topics make frequent appearances.  One of those topics, a question I hear often from students and other amateur musicians, is: "How do you practice?"  It's easy to see why.  The assumption is that professional musicians must be great, or at least successful, practicers, and that insights into the habits of accomplished musicians should provide valuable information about how to improve and make the best use of practice time. While I am always happy to share information about my own practicing, I always make an important qualification: practice is a personal thing.  There is no one way to practice, no secret passcode to gain entry to the clubhouse of good cello playing or success in the music profession.  You must [...]

Passing It On — by Brant Taylor

A few weeks back, I was having a post-concert drink with my friend and colleague Joshua Gindele, cellist of the Miro Quartet, and the conversation turned to teaching. Though we are both associated with ensembles that perform dozens of concerts every season, teaching the cello is an important component of both of our musical lives. (Josh teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, and I teach at DePaul University.) Discussions on the general relationship between performing and teaching often give rise to interesting questions, some without straightforward answers. Many performers teach even though the skill sets required for good teaching and good performing are far from identical. If great teaching is something that is learned, when and how are the skills acquired? If a performer is a big star [...]

Myth Busters — by Brant Taylor

Instrumentalists often prepare for an orchestra audition by seeking feedback on their preparation from a teacher or colleague.  Perhaps because my career includes both orchestral playing and teaching, I am frequently asked to coach players who are preparing solo work(s) and orchestral excerpts for a given audition.  Some players I hear are very new to the audition game, while others are already seasoned professionals looking to step up to another ensemble or for a promotion in their current group.  After years of talking with these musicians about auditions in general and about the specifics of their preparation, I've noticed several assumptions that players sometimes make about auditions.  While some of these assumptions are true, and made with good reason, many others are best described as myths. Some of these are half-truths, and [...]

Taking it on the Road — by Brant Taylor

One of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of life in a major orchestra is the touring. After "What difference does the conductor really make?" and "How did the orchestra like _____?" (conductor or soloist), the questions I'm asked most frequently by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's devoted audience are almost always about touring. Organizing an extended trip for a large orchestra, especially abroad, is an immense undertaking. The initial planning begins years before the event itself, and all of the logistics that must be in place for things to run smoothly take the full-time attention of dedicated members of the orchestra's administration.  There are a couple of travel companies in the U. S. who specialize in taking orchestras on tour, and the CSO uses one of these companies [...]

The Rules — by Brant Taylor

A while back, I accepted an invitation from my good friend Pansy Chang to teach her cello students.  Pansy teaches cello at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  She was taking a sabbatical for a semester and wanted to make arrangements for her students to receive lessons from different teachers in her absence.  I had a very enjoyable time meeting and working with the cellists in Oxford. It is always enlightening—and sometimes highly entertaining—to observe the various posters, photos, educational degrees, cartoons, and other items which adorn the walls of teaching studios around the world.  Among many other things hanging on the the walls of Pansy's studio, I noticed a piece of paper which I immediately knew could occupy a prominent place in my studio as well.  Titled simply "The Rules," [...]

Finesse — by Brant Taylor

Any musician who has interests outside the realm of music has probably discovered ideas and concepts important to other disciplines which are directly applicable to the study and performance of music.  The lessons we can learn about greatness from outside our own field are often very powerful because the underlying principles tend to be universal and not confined to any single discipline.  For the famed American chef Thomas Keller, there is one word he uses to describe his entire philosophy of approaching his craft at the highest level: finesse.  Chef Keller apparently doesn't want anyone who works for him to forget it—the word and its dictionary definition are emblazoned directly on the tiles above the entrance to the kitchen at Per Se, his high-end (and delicious) New York City restaurant: [...]

Doing More with Less — by Brant Taylor

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Havana, Cuba, accompanying a jazz band that was invited to perform at the Havana International Jazz Festival.  Considered a “cultural exchange,” the trip was approved by the U. S. Department of the Treasury and we made the short flight to Havana from Miami. (Because our embargo is a financial one, the U.S. Treasury oversees all travel between the U.S. and Cuba.  A full report on my impressions of Havana or on the 50 years of economic strangulation the Cuban people have experienced is far outside the scope and purpose of this space!) Among many other activities, we visited Havana’s Amadeo Roldan Conservatory, which teaches music to high school students.  While I am aware that Cuba has a vibrant, colorful musical tradition and [...]

Two Minutes of Your Time — by Brant Taylor

Early in 2011, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will hold auditions hoping to fill two vacancies in our cello section.  In my twelve years of hearing auditions as a member of this ensemble, hundreds of cellists have presented themselves on our stage. Some have done so several times. Their audience is a committee of nine members of the orchestra who sit behind a screen in our otherwise-empty hall.  Some of us take notes during the performances, but the only thing that matters to the process is the simple "yes" or "no" each committee member marks on a blank index card after every player has finished. If a candidate receives at least six "yes" votes in a preliminary audition, he or she advances to the final round.  To those unfamiliar with the [...]

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