Kim Cook

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"Musical Notes"


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What does Allegro mean?
What is a Concerto?
What does the conductor of an orchestra do?
Why do we play music by dead composers??
Whoops, I broke my "G" string!
Twenty-seven million dollars for a viola?
When is the time to clap in a classical music concert?
Sometimes parents ask me what is the best age to learn an instrument.
Why (and how) do the violins play with their bows going the same direction in an orchestra?
How (and why) does and orchestra tune?
An "A" equals 440 hertz, or does it?

What does Allegro mean?

Allegro means “happy” in Italian.  This term is frequently used to label a “movement” of a piece.  A movement is simply a complete section of a larger piece.  There may be 2, 3, 4, or 5 movements in a piece, although a typical structure for classical music is three movements in the order of fast-slow-fast. You might find Allegro-Adagio-Allegro on a program.  Allegro usually denotes a quick or lively tempo.  Adagio literally means at-ease, and can be interpreted as slow, or comfortable tempo, not hurried.  So these “tempo” markings, although they do tell us a general range of the tempo, are much more about character and mood.  The fact that there is no right or wrong tempo is a wonderful thing about music.  When a composer marks the music, he is trying to communicate a mood or emotion.  If you are happy and you feel upbeat, that’s how the music should feel if it is called Allegro.  Adagio can mean sad or happy, with a calmer feeling.

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What is a Concerto?

Concerto!? Is this a misprint for Concert?  Why are some pieces labeled Concerto and others Sonate or Symphony?  A concerto is a solo piece for an instrument with accompaniment by an orchestra. The most popular and typical concertos are written for piano or violin with an orchestra, however, a concerto can be written for any instrument with an orchestral accompaniment. The solo instrument is usually given a very difficult part with virtuosic lines to show off the beauty of the instrument and the facility of the musician within the context of the orchestral sound. There are exceptions to this such as a Concerto for Orchestra.  This means that the entire orchestra is being treated as a virtuosic soloist, so it would be very demanding for all parts. Most concertos of the “romantic period” (19th century) are made up of three movements, Fast-Slow-Fast.

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What does the conductor of an orchestra do? 

There he is, waving his arms above an orchestra!  Why can’t the instrumentalists play alone?  A conductor is the leader and vital force in an orchestral concert.  He/she is responsible for choosing the music, studying the music to provide insight and inspiration and then communicating his ideas to the orchestral players to form a convincing interpretation of the music.  The conductor is responsible for making sure that all the individual lines work together so that everything fits in the right place, while allowing the musicians to be expressive.   As an audience member, you may not be aware of all of the communication going on within a concert.  If someone misses an entrance, or a rhythm, it is up to the conductor to get the orchestra back together.  The greatest conductors are the ones who are listening to every detail of the music.  With 75 musicians playing at once, many with different parts, you can imagine that this is an incredible feat of concentration.  The conductor listens, gives cues and acknowledges each solo line.  The conductor has to know the music by memory, because there is no time to be consulting the score while he is listening in a concert.  Being a conductor is one of the most difficult and challenging roles for a musician.

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Why do we play music by dead composers?? 

Why do we read plays by Shakespeare?  Why do we preserve the paintings of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, or study the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci?  Why indeed?  Great works of music, literature, and art have qualities that transcend time and place! They still provide inspiration and meaning to individuals today.  We have many emotional and intellectual responses to sound that can't really be measured.  Hearing a piece by a great composer may make you feel joyful, or help you work through feelings of sadness, or just calm your soul.   Test it out yourself!  All you need is some curiosity and an open mind.  Try listening to the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven.  Or try the Messiah by Handel.  Since I am a cellist, one of my favorites is the C major Cello Quintet by Schubert!  (2 cellos, 2 violins, viola).  The very best way to hear music is to go to a local performance so that you can hear the instruments live!  Try your local symphony orchestra, and just let yourself absorb the music. Try to imagine why this music was so moving to people that it still survives today.  Enjoy!

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Whoops, I broke my “G” String!  And other hazards of playing concerts.

Musical performance does not come without its particular risks.  A cellist can be in the midst of an intensely emotional passage, when suddenly “TWANG!”  A string pops loose and you are forced to STOP, replace the string and begin again.  Alternatively, the endpin (a metal rod at the base of the cello) can lose its grip in the floor and slide forward (sometimes dragging you off the chair with it).  Once, when I was in high school, my endpin slipped in the middle of a performance, forcing me to hold the cello precariously for the rest of the sonata. After that, I went out and bought a metal file to sharpen the endpin for every performance.  I still use this regularly (but every now and then the cello skitters off anyway).  If your hand gets too sweaty, you can lose the bow.  Pablo Casals, the famous Spanish cellist, lost his grip on the bow during his Vienna debut.  The bow flew out into the audience, and it had to be passed back to him by the audience members.  During a televised concert by Yo Yo Ma, his chair slipped off the back of the cello platform.  Miraculously, he balanced on his legs until the chair was pushed back into place.  I was amazed by the coordination and presence of mind that it took to recover from that.

Probably the most embarrassing story that I’ve heard concerns cellist Zara Nelsova.  Her string of pearls broke in the middle of a performance.  Some of the pearls dropped into the cleavage of her dress and others, one by one, dropped on the wood floor, creating a wild percussive accompaniment.  Sometimes interpreting music is only half the battle!

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Twenty-seven million dollars for a viola?

Recently I went backstage after a string quartet concert at the Smithsonian Institute, featuring the famous Stradivari violins, viola, and cello.  As I waited in line to talk to the musicians, the violist came up to me and said: “Here, hold this viola.  It is worth 27 million dollars”…  As I gasped, I tried not to drop it, and then I looked at the beautiful instrument; so beautifully carved, with inlaid ivory and wood.  Each of these instruments is hand carved from the early 1700’s.  They are antiques, beautifully made with the highest craftsmanship, but they are most valued for the magnificent sound qualities they have when played!  Some violinmakers today feel that Stradivari has never been surpassed in terms of tonal excellence, design, and superiority of the workmanship. Scientists and violinmakers alike are still trying to discover and recreate the secrets of violinmaking at this time.
How much does an instrument for students or professionals cost today?  To buy a student instrument today, the cost of a cello can range between $2,000 for a starter instrument to $10,000 for a fine student instrument, to a high quality professional instrument which can cost anywhere from $30,000 to around six million.  It’s not just the cello that is expensive. A professional quality bow can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $100,000. Music can be an expensive habit!

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When is the time to clap in a classical music concert?

Many concertgoers are confused by the "etiquette" of clapping. You may try to follow the program and wonder "Where are we? Is this Allegro or Moderato?" Then you may just decide, "Oh well, I'll just wait to clap until someone else does." Although tradition has established rules, most musicians are thrilled to hear applause anytime, anywhere, so the next time you attend a concert, if you feel excited and moved to clap, please do! If you feel self concious about doing that, then watch the musicians for your best cue. If they begin to stand and bow, then it really is the time to clap.

Recently I heard a live performance on the radio and after a lively movement I heard a lone clap -- frozen after the person realized that no one else would be clapping. Most musicians would be flattered and delighted by the "clap" that held so much excitement and emotion. 

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Sometimes parents ask me what is the best age to learn an instrument?

Although I am not an expert in child development, my opinion is based on my experience and friends in the profession.  I think the best time to start a child with music lessons is when a child shows interest in learning to play an instrument.  I asked to start piano lessons at age six after I heard my sister practicing, and when I was nine, I took up cello in the public school program in a summer string workshop.  One way to encourage children to develop an interest in music is to take them to concerts.  Did you know that the School of Music at Penn State hosts over 350 concerts each year?  Most are either free or have a nominal charge.  In almost any city that has a university, you can find free concerts by students and faculty of the music department.  I also recommend showing children photos of different instruments, and/or playing recordings of the sound of each instrument.  (Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra are good options) Then let your child help to choose which concert they would like to hear.  An orchestra concert is a good way to introduce a student to the many different instruments.  Many city orchestras have some kind of children’s concerts, which are specifically designed to appeal to children!

Most professional musicians I know started at an early age.  Some studies of the brain have shown that before the age of 12, children have an easier time integrating the precise motor skills that are necessary for playing a musical instrument.  The most important part of learning an instrument is to keep it fun, and to make it an adventure!

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Why (and how) do the violins play with their bows going the same direction in an orchestra?

You may have noticed in an orchestra concert that the string players are usually playing with their bows completely coordinated in the same direction.  It is almost like a choreographed ballet!  Why do they do this? Is it planned, or do they just naturally fall into these patterns?  To get a particular “articulation” (clarity or accentuation of notes) it is desirable for every string player to use a certain part of the bow.  This helps to make the tone of each player to blend together with the others and to create a synchronized, uniform sound from the whole section. The concertmaster (first chair violinist) is responsible for coordinating the markings for the bows in the music.  He meets with the conductor to discuss how best to execute the conductor’s interpretation of the music.  Then the orchestra librarian transfers the markings into the music.  The symbols that we use to tell us when to play down-bow are simple -- a square box without the bottom line designates a down-bow movement, and a V indicates an up-bow.

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How (and why) does an orchestra tune?

At the beginning of each orchestra concert you will see the concertmaster (first chair violinist) enter to tune the orchestra.  He faces the orchestra and asks the oboist to play an “A”.  Is this just for show, or is it really necessary? Why does the orchestra need to “tune”?  The instruments go out of tune because of changes in temperature and humidity.  All instruments have a different reaction to the weather conditions.  For example, when the conditions are hot and dry, the pitch of the string instruments tend to go flat.   Likewise, with more humidity, the strings sound sharper. These tendencies are related to the shrinking and expanding of the wood of our instruments.

The concertmaster will ask for three or four “A”s from the oboist. An oboe has a concentrated tone that projects clearly, therefore it is easy to hear and for the other instruments to match. The oboist sustains the “A”, and soon the orchestra is bathing in what might sound like a cacophony of sound.  First he gives an “A” for the winds (flutes, clarinets, bassoons, oboes). After they are finished tuning, the concertmaster asks the oboist to give another “A” for the brass section (trumpets, horns, trombones, tuba).  The final “A” is for the string section. Some orchestras give two “A”s for the string section, one for the lower strings (cellos and basses) and one for the upper strings (violas and violins).  Since I am a cellist, I like to have the extra “A”. It helps to ensure that my tuning is more accurate.

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An “A” equals 440 hertz, or does it?

Why do we tune to an “A” that equals 440 hertz and what does this mean? With hertz (Hz), we are defining the frequency of cycles (sound waves) per second.   When an “A” equals 440 Hz, it means that there are 440 cycles per second. Thus, when you hear an “A” as equaling 440 Hz, it means that there are 440 sound waves vibrating your eardrum each second.  When the oboe plays the “A” at the beginning of an orchestra concert, is it really 440?   In 1939, an international treaty was signed standardizing modern pitch at “A” = 440 Hz.   Although this is a standard, it is not always strictly adhered to. Orchestras today may tune to an “A” that is anywhere from about 415 Hz (Baroque ensembles), to 442 Hz (many European orchestras) to 444 Hz (the Boston Symphony).  What difference does it make in the sound?  The lower the frequency, the lower the pitch and the less bright the sound will be.  This means that the strings are less taut, and have more flexibility and warmth.  For the higher frequency, (up to 444 Hz), the sound is much brighter and more resistant. Historically, pitch levels have risen gradually, perhaps as a result of competing to produce a brighter or more "brilliant" sound.  In the School of Music at Penn State, as in most music schools, we stick to the convention --we tune the “A” on our pianos to 440 Hz.

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