Archive for Tárogató Project

On Being in Tune

OnBeinginTune

Last night on YouTube, I interspersed viewings of hurricane Irma raging across the Caribbean with research into what other clarinettists consider to be playing in tune. My conclusions: This is a poor time to book a Caribbean holiday and, two, most people have not the slightest notion why they are proponents of long-tone exercises.

Playing long tones is like a religion that’s degenerated into empty gestures of devotion. Lacking any concept as to the intent of long tones, one tuning guru said, “The purpose of long tones is to, well, here’s how to do them…”, and he proceeded to play. Later, he added “Long tones are necessary so you can check your pitch”, but as he played, my tuner registered huge pitch swings (I don’t know what criteria he was using to check his pitch—he had no tuner in sight). For him, playing long tones is an act of faith.

Another proponent of long tones kicked off her presentation with the statement, “The reason for playing in tune is so you can play with a piano or other instruments.” While this isn’t entirely incorrect, it entirely misses the point of playing long tones. The primary purpose of playing long tones is to play in tune—with yourself. Each pitch is in tune relative to pitches around it, so once you’ve played a note, the note to follow must correspond in tuning with the first. Also, there are laws of overtones to consider, which is where Mr. Pythagoras enters with his observations about sound waves. A pitch an octave above its predecessor will vibrate at double the rate—if it vibrates at any other rate, you’re out of tune (or you’re not even playing an octave).

Out in the weird world of YouTube, there’s a tuning troll who wants to take issue about tuners and how people use them. He’s learned about Natural tuning and Tempered tuning and wants to use his knowledge to bludgeon the long-tone gurus for their well-intentioned but inaccurate videos. Tuning Troll has a good point, but I think it’s an erudite sideshow designed to distract from the simpler task of playing relative pitches in tune. And here’s why.

Tuning systems don’t even come into play when considering unisons and octaves, which is why they’re a good place to start. Parenthetically, they come in later when looking more deeply at relative pitches and harmonic structures. For example, the note B is tuned differently within a G major triad (it’s the third, which means in Natural tuning it needs to be lower than Tempered tuning would assign it) compared with an E major triad (it’s the fifth, which is relatively higher). For now, stick to unisons and octaves and the good old Pythagorian way.

I’ve left the identities of the above-misguided tuning gurus anonymous, but I’d like to call out this one excellent video on tuning. It’s by master clarinettist Jose Franch-Ballester. I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with him and learn first hand what his approach is, and in my sessions (and most importantly for you, in the following video), he explains the purpose of long tones. It’s almost all you need (well, that, and a couple of iPads) to get started playing in tune.

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part I

The pursuit of perfection

I have just finished reading Glenn Kurtz’s Practicing—A Musician’s Return to Music, a book I think should be added to the list of required reading for anyone seriously considering a career in music, or any vocation in which you give your ultimate all in the pursuit of perfection.

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure. I warm up my hands and awaken my ears and imagination, developing skill to equal my experience. I listen and concentrate in an effort to make myself better.

Kurtz describes a process parallel to my own (it even includes the classical musician’s obligatory pilgrimage to Viennawere we there within a year of each other?). He recounts the familiar stories of early promise, that music school optimism, the successes, the failures, and then the final and seemingly inevitable descent into musical oblivion. For Kurtz, a classical guitarist, graduation from music school meant a quick nosedive from the Elysian Fields of pure music into the sordid streets of making a living.

For me, I was one of those orchestral players he mentions in his book (the ones who could look forward to a steady paycheque playing with an orchestra). And his take on it is partially true—I certaily held it that the only viable way to be a successful musician was to land an orchestral job. And I seemed off to a good start as after graduation, I landed a job as Principal Clarinet with the Prince George Symphony (a community orchestra with aspirations enough to hire several principal players). Two years later, I quit to follow five years of free-lancing with the Vancouver Symphony (the real deal except of course that I was but an extra).

I lasted only a little longer than Mr. Kurtz before I too lost heart. In my last truly professional year, I auditioned for the Edmonton Symphony, the Hamilton Philharmonic, the Toronto Symphony, the Victoria Symphony, the Portland (Oregon) Symphony, and the Vancouver Symphony managing to come in as semi-finalist with the Toronto Symphony and runner-up finalist with both the Edmonton Symphony and the Hamilton Philharmonic (in back-to-back auditions no less).

The following years were exceedingly dry for clarinet vacancies across Canada with nothing but a Windsor Symphony audition (it actually paid less than the Prince George Symphony) to keep hope alive. After crashing and burning on that one (spectacularly), I was done.

In fact, I would go on being done for several decades to come.


Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part II

…Continued from Part I

When music breaks your heart

But now, I’ve read this book and realise that perhaps I’m not done. Or rather, I realise what it was that I was done with—and what it was was not music.

Concealed in all the careful tutelage of the conservatory system is an almost heartless contempt for the many who can never sustain such standards once they’ve graduated. This system is all about super stars and even more toxically, it’s about perfectionism and conformity. What isn’t destroyed by the conservatory system is put to the torch by the marketplace, which in my case was what I like to call the “Orchestral-Industrial Complex”.

In Kurtz’s Practicing, he once again reflects my journey back to music from the well-intentioned but highly destructive schooling that most musicians undergo. Like mine, his return isn’t a return to the audiences and certainly not the “music industry”, but to the soul of music itself. Practicing is about the musician’s journey back to his first love of music—the quasi-erotic sense of connection that is the essence of music.

As I play the theme of ‘Weeping Willow’ one last time, all my fantasies of success and all the flaws in my character rise again to the surface, my ambition and despair, concentrated in my fingertips. Each impulse, each need and doubt, clamours for expression, a little tyrant demanding its own way. And with each note these urgent demands collide with the limitations of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. It is the same thing every day, the same as it always was. Yet everything has changed.


Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part III

How do you return?

I was wrestling with the idea of playing music and (just like Kurtz) had the realisation that my playing back in the glory days hadn’t been especially great. The story I’d been telling myself was basically a victim one. I’d done everything I could and was cheated out of what I had deserved (there is a real story of deceit at an audition to prove it too)! But sitting there on the couch wrestling with the problem, I had a sudden dreadful thought. “What if I’m just mediocre?” I asked myself.

But as I listened, my heart sank. Rather than great potential lost to circumstance, I heard a harsh justice. The performance was not as good as I’d remembered. There were mistakes, of course. These were not what bothered me. Recordings accentuate finger slips. Few listners who aren’t also guitarists would hear them during the performance. The mistakes that bothered me now were botched prases, garbled lines that interfered with the music. There performance was full of musical ideas. But no piece was good from start finish.

Naturally, this deeply disturbed me although it was a fresh new thought. The next day, I took a look at that terrible question again and then asked myself “Now, do you still want to play music?” And like a rushing wind the answer “you bet I do” rushed through me. It turned out that the perfection I’d always aspired to was nothing but a chimera—the real goal was simply to play. In fact, to arrive is to die. It turns out that excellence is not a place (like a position in an orchestra), but it’s a feeling, it’s a way of being.

Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream—lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs. Is that time and effort, that talent and ambition, truly wasted?


Continued…

Practising – Excellence versus Perfectionism – Part IV

It’s About Excellence

 

But Kurtz’s Practicing is quickly becoming an important way-station in journey that has caused me to question my earlier life-choice to bail on music. Discovering the tárogató was another as was the long-awaited acknowledgement from the music establishment in the form of a BC Arts Council grant, but Practicing condensed all these little positive experiences into a sense that I wasn’t the problem, and certainly music wasn’t the problem—in fact, there really is no problem that a little practising can’t solve.

What I’d forgotten was just as music is a reward in itself (music has no goal other than to be music), my greatest satisfaction in being a musician was in the pursuit of excellence. Somehow that was skewed into the pursuit of perfection, but they’re utterly dissimilar. Where perfectionism is an unrelenting yet unattainable goal, pursuing excellence itself is the goal.

The Tárogató Project – Wrapping It Up

If the Tárogató Project hadn’t wrapped up with the concert (30 April 2017), then it certainly did when I submitted the final report to BC Arts Council. Doing so reminded me of all the people and events that came together (and that never would have otherwise).

About the Tárogató Project

The Tárogató Project (aka “Building a uniquely British Columbian Repertoire for the Tárogató”) was intended to commission two BC composers to each write a seven-minute piece of music for tárogató, which would build on its contemporary concert repertoire while not losing sight of its traditional folk roots.

By tying the commissions with an historical event, the project achieved far wider interest than would have been possible with only the commissions. The historical event was the 60th Anniversary of the arrival of Hungarian refugees to Vancouver, in particular about 200 faculty and students from the University of Sopron’s Faculty of Forestry. The alumni went on to have a significant impact on UBC, and forestry practices in British Columbia and the final concert was attended by several families descended from the original group.

The Project includes some notable artifacts

Listen to Arbutus by Jeffrey Ryan

Listen to I Will Stay Here by Adam Hills

Testimonials and letters: I received some importants letters of congratulations before and after the concert.

Also, I built a very cool new fingering chart for the tárogató, which is superior to anything I’ve been able to get my hands on. I offer it freely below.

Concert Programme

Big thanks to UBC’s Department of Forestry for helping to promote the concert and for coming on as a sponsor. Also, thanks to Vancity for providing some support with the concert itself. Their financial support helped St. Philip’s Church continue to offer such concerts without expending its music fund.

What I Learned

The entire process took a year and it carried with it its own joys and heartaches. I learned how hard it can be to work with musicians, many of whom function in some sort of off-the-grid pre-internet world, so arranging rehearsals was an extreme challenge. My 91-year-old mother is more reliable when it comes to responding to emails. On a brighter note, this project gave me something of great value to work at in music. It’s definitely whetted my appetite for excellence although time has worn of some of the downsides striving for excellence can bring. I understand my own perfectionist traits better and also my laziness. I’m learning on the one hand to chill out more, while on the other to quit wallowing and accept that some things require hard work to achieve.

 

Local Culture; local business

One of the most time consuming parts of producing a concert is getting the word out. When disbursing posters, the locally owned shops are better (because they get what local means); whereas, the megacorp emporia along the Cambie retail strip leave me negotiating with store greeters and those vacant McJob stares.

Also despite their large footprint, most megastores have no place for posting community and local events (although to their credit, Buy-Low Foods did offer to put a poster up in their employee lunchroom — so if I see a row of Philipino ladies at the concert, I’ll know my efforts were not in vain).

That’s why I have a special shoutout for Solly’s Bagelry for taking our concert poster after store hours and the great conversation we had about the tárogató and how Vancouver and the Hungarian Revolution overlapped and its importance to today’s refugees in Canada.

Nerdy good times – a tárogatónist’s confessional

Nerdy-Good-Times

Quite apart from being unquestionably sexy and having a reputation as savvy trendsetters, musicians also have a nerdy side. When string players visit their favourite luthier to have their bows rehaired, they will talk with disturbingly fevered intensity about the relative merits of Appaloosa over Arabian horse hair required for the job. Pianists tie rubber bands to their fingers to increase dexterity, and are known to also have preferred rubber band manufacturers, about whom they argue on Internet forums. Of course, none are worse than oboists who have no social life whatsoever. How could they? They spend the greater part of their lives sealed up in basement cells shaving their reeds down to a microscopic fineness; then, emerge only to perform and complain about how much more work they need to do to achieve reed perfection. To a lesser degree, it’s the same for other woodwind players of reed instruments: As a rule, most reed players can’t tell a bad reed from a bad week.

By taking up the tárogató, I seem to have painted myself into a particularly arcane corner (even by musician standards), so it’s no surprise that I too find myself just as prone to the same sort of nerdy obsessiveness as what dogs players of other instruments. It was inevitable.

Studio

Working on Adam Hill’s “I Will Stay Here” for tárogató and electronics

When I commissioned my tárogató from Toth & Tarsa of Budapest, I was provided with a deluxe menu of options similar to what you might expect when purchasing a custom Tesla or investing in a teak plantation. I could choose the wood (cocobolo), the fingering system (I chose the German Albert system over the French Boehm only because I’d been playing a borrowed Albert system tárogató prior to investing in my own horn), and the mouthpiece style (I naturally chose one that would take a clarinet reed over one that took a soprano saxophone reed—there are no tárogató reeds).

My tárogató's birthplace - Budapest, Hungary

My tárogató’s birthplace – Toth & Tarsa, Budapest, Hungary

When my tárogató arrived, I was delirious with joy and didn’t mind some of its funky tuning (“hey, it’s a folk instrument!”) and its limited range (only two octaves compared with four on the clarinet). Gradually, however, that nerdy musician thinking started to peer into the room and make suggestions about how—if only I tweaked this or bought that—my playing would improve unstoppably.

All my neighbours are out of earshot of my practising, so it is to their good fortune that they missed out on the months of squawking that transpired as I attempted to extend the range of the instrument. While clarinettists can chose from a number of method books that contain vast anthologies of fingerings for every note on the clarinet (I have one such book with over forty fingers alone for the altissimo G#), the tárogatónist must contend with a miserable starter’s fingering chart displaying but one fingering per note. Working on the two new works I commissioned from Jeffrey Ryan and Adam Hill forced me to extremes, so thanks to them and a lot of aforementioned squawking, I have now amassed quite a handsome new chart of tárogató fingerings.

Tarogato-fingering-chart_Jason-Hall

Caution should be taken when attempting these fingerings as they have only been tested on the Albert system tárogató (nobody knows for sure what would happen on a Boehm system tárogató).

Just as tárogató reeds are not known to exist, tárogató mouthpieces are a rarity. You can’t just march into your local guitar and drums music store and demand to see their display of tárogató mouthpieces.

LOTR_tarogato

My tárogató came from Budapest with a pleasant sounding mouthpiece, but with nothing to compare it against, I really couldn’t be sure if it was good or not. My quest for a superior mouthpiece led me to Dr. Ed Pillinger of Middlesex, England.

Dr. Ed is a skilled craftsman who spends most of his days whittling away at custom clarinet and saxophone mouthpieces. But every now and then, some tárogató-wielding colonial who’s heard he makes a good Stowasser copy, rings him up. I now have two “Pillingers”: one is pitched at about A445 (European pitch), whilst the other is pitched appropriately for North America at A440. The doctor and I had to find a cure in the latter one when the former one proved untunable and untenable with piano (or anybody on this side of the pond).

Pillinger-mouthpieces

Photographed on arrival (nothing makes social-media light up like the arrival of new tárogató mouthpieces).

With all this nerdiness now becoming a fixture in my life, I was instantly smitten when clarinettist François Houle let me try his new Ishimori Kodama II ligature (the thingy that holds the reed onto the mouthpiece). Smitten enough that I couldn’t be stopped until one of these babies was flying its way to me from Japan (of all places).

Ligature-instructions

Ishimori & Co. wins “World’s Shortest User Guide” award for 2017.

All of these marvels together has done much to strengthen the tuning of the instrument (no more excuses) and improve my confidence in the upper register. I’ve yet to start affixing tape into tone holes, a laborious practice to coax individual notes into pitch by adding successive layers of electrician’s tape (or as I’ve recently learned, “Kapton tape” available at any fine purveyor of model train accessories). Tone-hole taping will undoubtedly commence once all the new equipment has had time to settle in.

Tarogato-setup

A marvel to behold – New Pillinger mouthpiece with even newer Ishimori ligature.

So if ever you have romantic thoughts of the life of a musician as some care-free communion with the muse, think again: Musicians are about the nerdiest people you’ll ever meet.


Jason plays a custom Albert-system cocobolo tárogató made by Toth & Tarsa of Budapest, Hungary, a replica Stowasser mouthpiece by Pillinger Mouthpieces of Middlesex, UK, a Kodama II ligature by Ishimori Wind Instruments of Tokyo, Japan, and Légère Signature synthetic reeds formulated by Guy Légère of Montréal, Canada.

Tarogato-Project-logo

On 30 April 2017 (4pm),
The Tárogató Project and St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) presents
“REFUGE”
a concert of Hungarian music and stories (old and new)
of refugees to Vancouver.
St. Philip’s Anglican Church,
3737 27th Avenue West,
Vancouver, BC, Canada

Beauty amid darkness

Beauty-amid-darkness

With stories of refugees making subzero journeys across Canada’s shared border with the US, the world’s refugee crisis has just attained a new low. I’m not making hay out of blowhards like Trump and his band of orcs with this concert, but it certainly has made any artistic treatment of refugees timely.

The planned concert coincides with the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Sopron refugees to Vancouver, but I’m neither Hungarian nor a refugee. My connection is through the hauntingly beautiful tárogató—a national instrument of the Hungarians—which I play.
I was fortunate enough to receive a BC Arts Council grant to commission two new pieces for the tárogató, which I will perform on a concert at St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) 30 April.

Jeffrey Ryan’s Arbutus for tárogató and piano is full of turbulence, optimism, and a most beautiful melancholy. In Jeffrey’s words, “In Arbutus…the bends and ornaments of traditional tárogató playing are an integral part of both soundworlds, and the piano’s tremolos are reminiscent of the cimbalom. The title, Arbutus, comes from the arbutus tree so common in British Columbia, but not native to Hungary, again reflecting the “newness” of the Soproners’ new home.

Adam Hill’s I Will Stay Here presents a different challenge, at least for me, of working with electronics. Adam layers spoken word recordings Hungarian and Syrian refugees with processed sounds of the tárogató (I previously recorded these for him). Even though this concert endeavours to steer clear of politics, Hill’s piece beautifully presents the very real-world challenge for me as a musician is to retain my humanity and focus instead on individual human journeys while playing against a pre-recorded accompaniment—much like the theme of the concert itself.

Read more about the Tárogató Project.

Canada has Learned to Welcome its Refugees

The SS Komaguta Maru—the ship that brought 354 passengers from India (including many of Sikh backgrounds) to Vancouver harbour only to be turned back by Canadian authorities—is a refugee/immigrant story that’s received a lot of media attention. After the ship was turned away, it returned to India where on arrival many of its Sikh passengers were murdered. This incident has left a sickening scar on Vancouver’s collective memory.

In 1914 (at the time of the Komaguta Maru incident), Canadian immigration rules were unapologetically racist, but they weren’t much better come 1956 when troubles in Hungary spewed 200,000 refugees onto the world stage.

The Canadian government was still holding onto its time-honoured immigration policies, which favoured stock from north-western Europe over all others. But as Soviet tanks crushed the nascent Hungarian revolution, the Canadian people themselves pressured the government to revise its policies about what constitutes a prospective Canadian. And so the characteristically Canadian way of opening our hearts and doors to others in need was birthed on the streets of Budapest.

In the early months of 1957, thousands of Hungarians arrived on over 200 chartered flights[1]. At the University of British Columbia, the entire teaching staff and student body from the University of Sopron’s Department of Forestry arrived en masse[2], thus forming (for a time) North America’s only Hungarian-language forestry classes[3].

2016 marked the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, and 2017 marks the anniversary of the arrival of Hungarian refugees to Canada. The Tárogató Project is fundamentally a refugee story.


[1] A Hundred Years of Immigration to Canada 1900 – 1999 (part 2). 1994, http://ccrweb.ca/en/hundred-years-immigration-canada-part-2. Accessed 27 Aug. 2016.

[2] Canada, Citizenship Government of. Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977. 1 July 2006, http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/publications/legacy/chap-5b.asp. Accessed 13 Aug. 2016.

[3] The Sopron Division of the Faculty of Forestry. UBC, Faculty of Forestry, http://www.forestry.ubc.ca/general-information/ubc-forestry-history/sopron-story/. Accessed 27 Aug. 2016.

Tarogato-Project-logo

On 30 April 2017 (4pm),
The Tárogató Project and St. Philip’s Church (Dunbar) presents
“REFUGE”
a concert of Hungarian music and stories (old and new)
of refugees to Vancouver.
St. Philip’s Anglican Church,
3737 27th Avenue West,
Vancouver, BC, Canada