Graduate School

After approximately a year of preparation, research, learning repertoire, visiting colleges, taking the GRE (which is a total bullshit moneymaking scam, by the way-more on this later), and filling out multitudes of forms, the results are in. I will be attending the M.A. in Music program with a concentration in Music Theory and Music History at Hunter College this fall!

When I finished my undergraduate studies last May, I had this gut feeling that this was the one time in my life where the sky was the limit and I could try to get in to some amazing colleges for graduate school. So that’s what I did. I aimed high, applying to Yale, Juilliard, Columbia, The CUNY Graduate Center, and Hunter College. I knew that all of these schools are difficult to get into and that there was a very real possibility that I wouldn’t get accepted to any of them, but for some reason, in my mind, I just had to try and see what happened.

While I did have some fears about this process, rejection wasn’t one of them. As a musician, I’m used to being rejected. It happens…a lot. Most of the time, venues and other music-related jobs don’t even bother to let me know: I just never hear from them, or suddenly never hear from them again (huge props to the people who do let me know-it really is very much appreciated!). Anyone who is a fellow musician, writer, artist, or creative professional knows what I’m talking about. After a while, you realize that it’s not personal; it’s just part of the job. This experience proved to be an asset, as it helped a lot with keeping things in perspective throughout the application process and making an informed and carefully considered decision.

I wasn’t sure what to major in. I love playing classical guitar, and I also love studying music theory, music history, teaching music, and reading lots of good books about almost any topic of interest. As a result, I figured that I would apply to both performance and non-performance based programs in music, prepare as best as I could, and see what happens. My ultimate reason for applying to graduate school is that it is a credential that will put me one step closer to my long-term goal of being a music professor. That being said, I also believe in keeping my options open and strive to view the future in a way that is simultaneously both highly focused and reasonably broad. In short, this was a year in transition. I spent the year working to grow my career as a performer and music educator, and, of course, getting ready for applying to graduate school. For the first time since I began playing music, I was not taking classes or lessons, and I reveled in this newfound freedom, especially with regards to playing classical guitar. I started playing classical guitar to attend an undergraduate program in guitar performance, and as a result have never been able to choose which pieces to work on. I am very grateful for the excellent formal training that I received, and it is because of this training that I am able to choose repertoire that is both inspiring and challenging. However, I love getting to choose my repertoire for the first time, without having to worry about grades, juries, or other academic deadlines.

For the combined M.A./Ph.D. programs, I needed to take the GRE. I bought a test prep book and taught myself by going through the book, focusing on the topics that I struggled most with (such as math), and watching lots of Kahn Academy videos (Kahn Academy is AWESOME! Highly recommended!). I had read about a lot of test center nightmare stories online, so I researched the test centers extensively before signing up, and had a great experience at the one in Purchase, NY-the people there were very professional, kind, and fair. I have a lot of choice words about the GRE, but before I begin my tirade, I would like to point out that the GRE does do one thing reasonably well: it does a good job of measuring your abilities on the subjects that are on the GRE, and only on the subjects that are on the GRE. Predictably, I scored well on the topics that I am generally good at, and did not score as well for the topics that I am not generally good at. It also forced me to learn some basic skills that I had previously not thoroughly learned. Both good things, as far as it goes.

That being said, there are many things wrong with the GRE. First of all, it’s too expensive. It costs $205 just to take the test, the average test prep book is about $50, and if you want to be super prepared and sign up for tutoring, you can spend thousands on preparing for this test. Also, you can take the test multiple times, but you have to pay for the test again for each retake. Sounds like a nice way for ETS to make a hell of a lot of money off of our societal obsession with test scores. This is a marketing strategy that clearly favors people who are wealthy or have wealthy parents, and is a huge disadvantage for those of us (read: most of us) who are not wealthy or have wealthy parents. In addition, the steep cost discourages some very intelligent people from applying to graduate school.

It’s also a huge time suck. Like any other big test, the GRE takes a long time to adequately prepare for, which adds a lot to the time spent preparing for graduate school applications. It’s yet another requirement to prepare for, except unlike most of the requirements (which actually for the most part make sense and relate to your field of study), it is questionable how much my performance on a test which does not cover music or related fields actually demonstrates my readiness (or lack thereof) for graduate school in the field of music. This is also true for other non-STEM majors. Because of these reasons, I recommend that colleges and states stop requiring the GRE as an admissions requirement for graduate school. I realize that I am a comparative nobody in the field of education policy, but I sincerely and firmly believe that it is important to critically think about the way things are, express our views in a reasonable manner, and expound on ways to make things better, or, in this case, reasons to eschew the given thing altogether.

One of the upsides of applying to graduate programs in both performance and non-performance fields was that I learned a lot about multiple disciplines of music. I learned some beautiful and timeless classical guitar repertoire (some of which I’ve discussed on this blog), reviewed and expanded my music theory knowledge, and as a result became a more intelligent and well-rounded musician and person. I applied to the guitar performance programs at Yale and Juilliard; the musicology programs at Columbia and The Graduate Center, CUNY; and the music theory program at Hunter College.

One of the highlights of this journey was making it to the audition round at Juilliard. The audition was located in a music studio room at Juilliard, and consisted of playing for Sharon Isbin. You know, the same Sharon Isbin that has performed with Sting and Billy Joel, has played at The White House, and is an astoundingly incredible guitarist. It was one of the most nerve-wracking 15 minutes of my life. I was asked to choose my first piece, so I chose Variations Mignonnes by Mertz. There were a couple of small mistakes, but I feel that I played it well overall. Then Mrs. Isbin asked me to play what was (for me) the most difficult piece in the audition repertoire: the final movement of Walton’s Five Bagatelles. I stumbled through it as best as I could; there were some good moments, but many mistakes. I was relieved to have finished the piece with no memory slips. As you might have guessed, I didn’t get in to Juilliard, but will never forget that audition.

For Hunter College’s M.A. program, I was required to take a test in music theory and ear training. As I had expected, I did well in the theory portion of the test, but not as well in the ear training section. I wasn’t sure if I would get in. However, I was very happy to receive an email stating that I had been accepted, and would I be interested in a mixed concentration in either music theory and performance or music theory and music history? I appreciate Hunter’s emphasis on a holistic and multidisciplinary approach to the study and analysis of music, the option to choose a mixed concentration, the kindness of the students and faculty, and the reasonable tuition costs. I knew right away that Hunter would be a great fit. I chose a mixed concentration in music theory and music history, as I am passionate about both fields and would like to further my knowledge in order to strengthen my musical and academic background, facilitate my long-term career goal of working as a university professor, and become better equipped to advocate for the classical guitar as a legitimate classical instrument. I said yes to the offer of admission, and am very much looking forward to attending graduate school this fall!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Bagatelles by William Walton

The story of William Walton’s Five Bagatelles is one of collaboration, transformation, and assimilation. Like many composers whose works have become a part of the contemporary classical guitar repertory, Walton did not play guitar. Walton’s Five Bagatelles was commissioned and written in collaboration with the world-renowned guitarist, Julian Bream in 1971. Bream went on to give the first performance of the Five Bagatelles at the Bath Festival in Bath, England in 1972, and was the first to record this work.

Walton later reworked the music of the Five Bagatelles for solo piano, and “Varii Cappricci”, a suite for orchestra. In this way, the evolution of the Five Bagatelles contrasts with that of most guitar works written by a composer who did not play guitar. In many cases, a composition will originally have been written for another instrument (such as piano or lute, for instance), and later transcribed for the guitar by a guitarist. Here, however, we see the exact opposite historical progression. The Five Bagatelles were  written for guitar and then transcribed for solo piano, and orchestra, by the composer himself. Ironically, Walton later seemed to forget that he originally wrote the Five Bagatelles for guitar (see the last few seconds of the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=217&v=Wk4RsE7VJ7I).

The musical character of the work features an artful assimilation of modern and traditional classical music influences, which is a cornerstone of Walton’s compositional style. In this work, Walton blends lyrical melodies with dissonant and extended harmonies, unexpected musical detours, recurring rhythmic and melodic figures, and guitaristic techniques such as tambora, plucked harmonics, and rasgueado. Although the word ‘bagatelle’ typically refers to a short, light piece of music, each bagatelle in this work possesses a distinct feel. As professor, composer, and writer Phillip Cooke notes in his blog post on the Five Bagatelles (http://www.phillipcooke.com/on-william-waltons-five-bagatelles/) , “The five different bagatelles each capture a different mood from the relentlessly upbeat first, the languid second, the smoky, seductive third, the dreamy fourth and the frantic finale.”

 

 

 

The Bach Cello Suites: A Brief Historical Background

J.S. Bach’s Six Cello Suites have been studied, performed, and recorded by countless musicians (including classical guitarists). They have become a fixture of the classical music repertoire. The Cello Suites have even made their way into contemporary mainstream culture via television performances, movies, videos, and radio. Most people have at least heard the opening notes of the Prelude to the first Cello Suite. As a result, their place in musical history appears to be exceedingly secure.

However, although the Cello Suites were composed approximately three centuries ago, there is much that is not known about this iconic composition.

First of all, the original manuscript is lost. Because of this development, we are left with many questions concerning the composition of the Cello Suites. We don’t know the exact date that they were composed, or what tempo, dynamics, or even instrumentation Bach intended for each movement. In other words, the Cello Suites could have been originally written for another string instrument! (see this fascinating article: http://www.pauldwyer.net/blog/so-what-instrument-were-these-cello-suites-written-for).

The earliest surviving manuscript of the Cello Suites was penned by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena Bach between 1727 and 1731, and is the source for most of what we know about the Cello Suites today. Interestingly, this manuscript was not written for a cellist. Instead, it was intended for violinist Georg Heinrich Ludwig Schwanenberger. Three other early manuscripts survive: one by J. Peter Kellner from the early-mid 1700’s, another by two unknown authors from the mid 1700’s, and yet another by an unknown author from the late 1700’s (all of these manuscripts can be viewed here: https://www.jsbachcellosuites.com/score.html#9WJNcwhn).

Most of the Cello Suites were written around 1720, while Bach worked as Kapellmeister (Court Music Director) for Prince Leopold in Cöthen. During his time in Cöthen, Bach mainly wrote instrumental music for soloists or ensembles, and this output included six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, the six Cello Suites, and a Partita for solo Flute. Although nowadays pieces of music written for solo instruments are relatively common, in Bach’s time, it was quite unusual for music to be written for a solo instrument. This convention especially applied to a lower-pitched instrument such as the cello, which had previously been viewed as an accompaniment instrument. While Bach was not the first composer to write music for a solo instrument, his contribution to the cello repertoire was highly unusual at the time, and ultimately transformed the public’s perception of the capabilities and limitations of the cello. One of the most remarkable aspects of Bach’s compositions for solo instruments is that they tend to sound as if they are played by more than one instrument. Despite the cello’s inability to play full chords, Bach makes clever use of double stops, arpeggios, and alternating musical registers to create the illusion of harmony. The listener mentally “fills in” the remaining harmony notes without realizing that they are missing. As a result, the Cello Suites sound full and deeply resonant, even though they are played by a single instrument.

Bach used the dance suite form for the Cello Suites, and each Suite consists of six movements. Every suite begins with a Prelude, which tends to be dramatic, improvisatory, and full of character. This is followed by the Allemande, an elegant dance movement that was popularly performed but not often danced to during Bach’s time. After the Allemande comes the Courante, an upbeat dance of which there are two main types: the French Courante or the Italian Corrente. Bach usually used the Italian version in the Cello suites. The fourth movement consists of a Sarabande, which was originally a passionate and sultry Iberian dance, but by Bach’s time mellowed to a slow, longing character that was influenced by its use in French courts. The fifth movement is either a Minuet, Gavotte, or Bourrée, all of which possess a memorable, melodic, and generally joyful aesthetic. Lastly, all of the suites conclude with a Gigue, an animated and up-tempo dance movement with a big personality.

Bach (or his Cello Suites) were never famous in his lifetime. Before Pablo Casals’ groundbreaking recording of the Cello Suites in 1938, the Cello Suites were viewed as musically dry pedagogical studies. In fact, if Casals had not stumbled upon this work at a music shop in Barcelona as a teenager, the Cello Suites might still be shrouded in the dimly lit hall of musical obscurity. In the decades following Casals’ recording, multitudes of incredible cellists, violinists, violists, classical guitarists, and other instrumentalists have performed, recorded, and spread the word about the inimitable beauty and staying power of Bach’s Cello Suites.

Some cool resources: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/bach/music/cello-suites/, http://theconversation.com/decoding-the-music-masterpieces-bachs-six-solo-cello-suites-83797, https://www.amazon.com/Cello-Suites-Casals-Baroque-Masterpiece/dp/0802145248, https://books.wwnorton.com/books/webad.aspx?id=4294977603,

Prelude #6 by Manuel Ponce

Prelude No. 6 is the last prelude to be analyzed in this six part series on Manuel Ponce’s Preludes. It is my favorite of Ponce’s first 6 Preludes because of its beautiful melody, intriguing musical structure, and cohesive sound despite not being written in a song form. Like Prelude No. 5, Prelude No. 6 is in 2/4, combines modern music, Mexican folk music, and impressionist influences to create a sublime musical whole. The piece primarily uses an 8th note texture and utilizes auxiliary components (a simple introduction from mm 1-3 and a Coda from mm 34-40) but does not follow any traditional song form. Instead, the form of the piece is suggested by the melodic contour of each phrase. The entire composition seems to be derived from the first phrase (mm 4-8) after the introduction, as each subsequent phrase possesses a similar (and at times identical) melodic contour as the first phrase. In addition, this piece is the only one of the 6 Preludes to feature bitonality. The accompaniment is in the tonal center of A major, but the melody is in the key of D minor.

An A pedal tone is present throughout, and the accompaniment acts as a drone that supports the melody, although colorful impressionist harmonies are also present. A change of voice occurs in mm 21-24, in which the melody is played in the bass and middle voices, and a tone color change occurs in mm 29-33, in which the right hand plucks the strings towards the bridge of the instrument, creating a ponticello effect. The Coda consists of cadential material derived from the last two measures of the final phrase before the coda begins, and the piece both begins and ends on the same voicing of an A major chord.

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Overview of 6 Preludes and Conclusion

Manuel Ponce and Andres Segovia’s 6 Preludes reflect the wide reaching influences of their composer, making use of elements from Mexican and Spanish folk music, 20th century music, the impressionist music of Debussy and Ravel, and the unique characteristics of the guitar. The irregular phrases that occur throughout the work and the relatively small pitch range and lyricism of the melodies are elements from Mexican and Spanish folk music. The 20th century music influence can be seen most clearly in Prelude No. 3 and Prelude No. 6, neither of which ascribe to a traditional song form. In addition, Prelude No. 3 uses pantonality and Prelude No. 6 uses bitonality, two primarily 20th century harmonic concepts. The impressionist influence can be seen throughout the work in the often unusual and extended harmonies chosen for the accompaniment. The profound dynamic and tone color changes in Preludes 1, 2, 4, and 6, the change of voice in the melodies of Preludes No. 1 and No. 6, the use of harmonics in Prelude No. 2, and the use of open strings in Preludes 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 are all notable examples of Ponce and Segovia’s exploitation of the musical potential of the guitar. This extraordinary synthesis of styles and compositional approaches demonstrates Segovia and Ponce’s virtuosic skills, creativity, and commitment to musical excellence.

Some Cool Resources

Hope you enjoyed this mini-series on Ponce’s 6 Preludes! If you would like to learn more about Ponce, Segovia, the 6 Preludes, or any related topics, I highly recommend checking out the following resources:

“A History of Western Music” (somewhat pricy but an excellent and comprehensive resource for any music-related research) http://books.wwnorton.com/books/webad.aspx?id=4294977603

“The Influence of Folk Music in Guitar Compositions by Manuel Ponce” by Arnoldo Garcia Santos. Absolutely fascinating dissertation on how folk music influenced Ponce’s compositional style!

“The Classical Guitar in Paris: Composers and Performers c. 1920-1960” by Duncan Robert Gardiner. Excellent thesis on the leading guitarists and composers in Paris working during the mid 20th century!

“Preludes (24) for Guitar” by Blair Johnston. Brief yet very informative overview of Ponce and Segovia’s Preludes. https://www.allmusic.com/composition/preludes-24-for-guitar-mc0002462700

“The Segovia-Ponce Letters” by Andres Segovia and Manuel Ponce. Fascinating book that is a great window into Segovia’s collaboration with many notable composers, including Manuel Ponce. https://www.amazon.com/Segovia-Ponce-Letters-English-Spanish/dp/0936186291

 

 

 

Prelude No. 4 by Manuel Ponce

Prelude No. 4 is a fast and lively piece in 3/8 and is written in regular three-part song form. The texture of the piece is primarily eighth notes. All phrases are irregular, the piece is primarily a modal mixture of the parallel keys of B major and B minor, the melody is similar in character to a Spanish gypsy song, and the harmonies include Neapolitan and extended chords. These developments exemplify the combination of folk, impressionist, and modern influences that is a constant throughout the work. The A section (mm 1-15) utilizes a B pedal tone from mm 1-7 and the harmonic accompaniment alternates between B major and B minor throughout the A section. This is followed by a transition that consists of an unaccompanied scale passage from mm 16-21 that leads into the B section. The B section features a stark change of texture to a largely unaccompanied melody from mm 25-28 that possesses characteristics that are similar to melodies sung in the style of Cante Jondo, a vocal and poetic style of Andalusian flamenco music that is known for setting melodies of a small pitch range to lyrics that typically convey deeply emotional subject matter. Like most Cante Jondo music, the melody features a narrow range and is primarily unaccompanied. Shortly thereafter, the key changes to G# minor, the relative minor of B major, and there is an extended half cadence from mm 33-36 leading to a varied repetition of the melody that first appeared in mm 25-28. There is also an F# pedal tone and impressionistic chord voicings from mm 41-49. The first phrase of the A section (A’) comes back in slightly modified form from mm 53-58, which is followed by a ten measure Coda that alternates between B major and its neapolitan chord, C major, ending on an imperfect authentic cadence in B major.

For more on Flamenco and Spanish gypsy music, check out this dissertation: https://aquila.usm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1846&context=dissertations (go to pages 5-6 to learn more about Cante Jondo music)

Prelude No. 3 by Manuel Ponce

Prelude No. 3 is in several ways a composition that is significantly distinct from the other five Preludes. It is the only Prelude in this work that is completely through composed, meaning that there are no definitive sections and each phrase is different while also exhibiting some commonalities. It also is the shortest Prelude, consisting of only 19 measures, and has the slowest tempo of the 6 Preludes, being played at a graceful and somewhat free Andante. In addition, it is in F# major, which has more sharps than any of the other keys used in this work. Unifying factors in this piece include the melody being either unaccompanied or very lightly accompanied, sometimes by a bass line and occasionally by chords, which for the most part tend to be placed at the end of phrases to give the piece a sense of momentum. Also, imitation between the melody and bass line or the bass line and melody occurs in measures 1-3, 8-9, and measure 15. Phrases 2 and 4 have a similar melodic contour, as well as phrases 3 and 5. Phrases 1, 3, and 5 are irregular, though phrases 2 and 4 are of the normal four-measure length. A brief modulation to the chromatic mediant bIII key occurs in measures 10-11, before quickly modulating back to the tonic. Measure 17 uses pantonality, which is the use of nonfunctional and chromatic harmonies, to set up an imperfect authentic cadence that ends the piece. See below for my analysis of Prelude No. 3 (as well as the first 13 measures of Prelude No. 4):

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24 Preludes by Manuel Ponce: A Brief Historical Background

In the late 1920’s, Mexican composer and pianist Manuel Ponce was commissioned by Andres Segovia to write twenty-four Preludes for guitar. Two volumes consisting of 6 Preludes each were published in 1930, while the remaining twelve Preludes were not published until 1980 by guitarist, Miguel Alcazar. All twenty-four Preludes make extensive use of many of the unique attributes and timbres of the guitar, such as the use of harmonics, different musical textures, placing the melody in different and sometimes unexpected registers, and utilizing specific strings extensively to bring out some of the distinctive tone colors of the instrument. Though not primarily a guitarist, Ponce composed many works for guitar, and had an ingenious ability to exploit the unique characteristics and limitations of the instrument, composing many memorable and unique pieces that are now important parts of the standard classical guitar repertory.

Segovia and Ponce first crossed paths in 1923, when Segovia played a concert in Mexico that Ponce attended for the purpose of writing a concert review for a local paper. Ponce was instantly impressed with Segovia’s virtuosity and musical sensibilities and wrote a favorable review of the concert. After reading Ponce’s review, Segovia arranged to meet with Ponce to encourage him to compose music for the classical guitar, starting a prolific series of collaborations and a long friendship over a period of slightly more than twenty years. This collaboration resulted in the composition of many notable guitar works such as “Theme Varie, et Finale”, “Sonata Mexicana”, “Concierto del sur for guitar and orchestra”, and twelve of Ponce’s twenty-four Preludes. Segovia also played a part in refining these pieces by adding fingerings, occasionally transposing to more guitar-friendly keys, and making other changes for performance purposes.

Ponce composed these twenty-four Preludes during the first five years of his eight-year stay in Paris, France, which began in 1925 and ended in 1933. Ponce and Segovia originally intended to write twenty-four Preludes for guitar with the purpose of creating a guitar method that would introduce guitarists to all twenty-four keys. However, after the publication of the first two sets of 6 Preludes by Schott Publishing in 1930, Segovia informed Ponce that Schott would not publish the remaining two volumes due to the economic depression of the 1930’s. Segovia recorded the first set of 6 Preludes for Decca records in 1952, greatly contributing to their enduring popularity. Nearly fifty years after the publication of the first two volumes, guitarist, Miguel Alcazar was granted access to some of Ponce’s surviving music archives and found all but one of the additional twelve Preludes that previously had not been published. To complete the set, Alcazar used Ponce’s folk song “Cuando la Aurora” in place of the missing Prelude and transposed the piece to G major, thus fulfilling Ponce and Segovia’s original goal of publishing twenty-four Preludes that would introduce guitarists to all twenty-four keys. Alcazar than proceeded to publish the final set of twelve Preludes in 1980 (fifty years after the publication of the first two volumes in 1930), which were received well by the classical guitar community and continue to be widely taught, learned, and performed to this day.

References: “The Influence of Folk Music in Guitar Compositions by Manuel Ponce” by Arnoldo Garcia Santos: https://repository.asu.edu/attachments/134856/content/GarciaSantos_asu_0010E_13688.pdf, “The Classical Guitar in Paris: Composers and Performers c. 1920-1960” by Duncan Robert Gardiner: http://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2268&context=theses_hons, “Preludes (24) for Guitar” by Blair Johnston: https://www.allmusic.com/composition/preludes-24-for-guitar-mc0002462700, “The Segovia-Ponce Letters” by Andres Segovia and Manuel Ponce. Edited by Miguel Alcazar. https://www.amazon.com/Segovia-Ponce-Letters-Miguel-Alc%C3%A1zar/dp/B0058UA0ZW