We’ve got an exciting year ahead of us in the Cambridge Philharmonic. Not only do we have a great season of concerts, but we’ve introduced a learning & development plan for the string section as well.

A blank notebook on a wooden desk.

Goals

  1. Improved intonation on tonic and dominant chords.
  2. Playing in the same part of the bow as the front desk

We will be releasing more video and written content throughout the year relating to these goals as well as holding special workshops.

Videos

We will also be releasing a series of eight short videos covering the following topics:

  • Introducing Goal 1: Tonic and Dominant Intonation
  • Introducting Goal 2: Playing in the same part of the bow as the front desk
  • Orchestral practise tips for busy people
  • No accidental bow noises
  • Whose fingering to use?
  • Quick page turns
  • Passing messages back
  • Essential stringed instrument maintenance

Retrospectives

One of the techniques we have learned from the software industry is to have a post-concert retrospective where we ask questions like

  • “What went well?”
  • “What could have been better?”
  • “What should we do differently next time?”

The answers to these questions are then used to guide the preparation for the next concert.

What’s next?

Keep an eye on the YouTube DeskNotes playlist, this blog and social media as we will be releasing the videos Saturday mornings at 10am starting 7 September 2019.

Cambridge Philharmonic Twitter

Paula Muldoon Twitter

#DeskNotes

Me at Carnegie Hall

As many of you know, I am both a violinist and a software engineer. I have a Masters degree in violin performance and have played in 20 countries, and a couple years ago I did a programming bootcamp and have been working for 2 years as a software engineer. In my holidays I go on tours (Carnegie Hall last year, Paris this summer) so I have to keep up a high standard of violin playing while also holding down a 9–5 job. So here are my tips for keeping in good musical shape with a busy lifestyle!

1. What to practice?
 I take notes on my phone during rehearsal of tricky passages that need
 work. Then when I start practising, I have a hit list so I don’t faff around wondering what to do.
 
2. Intonation
I’ve used The Tuning CD extensively myself and with my orchestra. It plays overtones so you can really precisely determine your intonation — incredibly eye-opening, depressing at first, but ultimately very cathartic.
 
3. Rhythm
 I also practice frequently with a metronome and it’s something I highly
 recommend. Also if you think you’re playing in time, try recording yourself
 and play along. Metronomes are especially useful in 3/4 and slow 6/8 as
 those are difficult time signatures to keep in tempo.
 
4. Tracking practice
 I use a very fancy Paperblanks journal with a nice pen to record every day
 my start/end times, what I’ve covered, and what I’ve learned. Every month I
 read over what I’ve accomplished that month and set goals for the next
 month (including number of hours to practice). It’s important to have a
 plan with practising so you can tell if you’re being effective.
 
5. Recording
 Recording oneself is SO useful! A smartphone has a plenty good microphone,
 and you can hear so much more when you’re not busy playing. I suggest
 especially before practising rhythm/intonation to record yourself as a
 baseline comparison and then when you’ve finished practising.
 
6. How much to practice
 I set monthly goals based on what’s realistic with my work schedule. While
 practising is about much more than just time, you can’t have good practice
 if you don’t carve out the time to begin with. It’s a lot less than the 4
 hours/day I used to practice as a student but I’ve also become much more
 effective so I get more done in less time. That being said, 15 minutes a
 day is infinitely better than no minutes a day, especially if you have a
 goal and are focused and disciplined. 15 minutes/day 5 days a week is 5
 hours a month!
 
7. Resources
 The Bulletproof Musician blog/podcast has interesting ideas on practising –
 check out the interview with Catherine Cho on how improving a sense of pulse.
Modacity is a practice app built by a French horn player. Built in recording capacity and lots of oher great features.
The Tuning CD — Spotify
The Tuning CD — Apple Music

I’ve recently rocketed my music setup into the 21st century and I thought I’d share with you the tech I’m using now!

Tablet & Stylus

Essential for reading music. I use the iPad pro 12.9″ with the Apple pencil. 
Benefits:

  • Save the trees — no more printing music
  • Easy to mark up in different colours
  • Also easy to erase — no more residual pencil marks
  • Easy to read in dim light
  • Entire music library in one lightweight tablet (yes, they are light now)

Learning curve:

  • None, really

Pedal

Must-have to turn the pages. I use the Donner (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Donner-Bluetooth-Rechargeable-Reading-Controller/dp/B01MZICTQV)

Benefits

  • No more difficult page turns

Keyboard

I use a midi keyboard to input notes into Musescore. Great for composing quickly! Doesn’t do rhythms but the pitch saves you a lot of time. Really portable as well — took it on a transatlantic flight iwth no problem.

I use M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 II, Compact Portable 32-Key USB/MIDI Keyboard Controller with Synth-Action Velocity-Sensitive Keys (https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00IWRJSE2/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1)

Benefits

  • Easily plugs into MacBook
  • Draws power from MacBook
  • 32 keys but has a big range as you can hit the plus or minus button to move your octave around

Modacity — Practice App

Home

I use this app every day with my practice and I think I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do. Shoutout to Andrew Hitz at The Entrepreneurial Musician podcast for introducing me to this!

Benefits

  • Make practice lists
  • Record yourself easily
  • Metronome/tuner
  • Tracks time spent practicing
  • Tracks practice streaks

ForScore — for reading music

I got this app several years ago for reading music, back when it was half the price. Not sure I’d buy it now as there might be cheaper alternatives, but I’m very pleased with it nonetheless.

PiaScore — IMSLP app

Great for downloading music from the wonderful free IMSLP library.

Musescore — for composing

Like Sibelius, but free. I compose on my MacBook Air but there is an iPad app as well which I haven’t tried.

Ever wondered what sort of structures classical music has? The answer is — loads! This week I gave a presentation to my coding cohort about sonata form. If you’re curious to know what’s going on with classical forms, check out the video below! 
 
 You’ll want a Spotify account (free is fine) and if you like, you can follow along with the score as well. If you’re not comfortable reading a 4-part score, I suggest following either the first violin (top line, treble clef) or cello (bottom line, bass clef).
 ​
 Full score: hz.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/2/26/IMSLP04758-Beethoven_-_String_Quartet_№4_Dover.pdf
 Spotify link:
 open.spotify.com/track/2YCrzzNg8RsF9TR7ZjdwiM
 Workshop slides
 docs.google.com/presentation/d/16Yi77R4Qn1Xxp30CSV0RRTP_QP3XsegoX9BjKUvT_fI/edit?usp=sharing
 
 
 
 Have fun and post in the comments!

Sonata Form Workshop for Makers Academy from Paula Muldoon on Vimeo.

Originally published in April 2017.

A blurry action shot from 2010 of my quartet. We are all laughing at a page turn incident.

I’m always curious which lessons from my 22 years of playing the violin can be usefully applied to programming, and the 6-step assertive communication post that one of my cohort shared got me thinking about the ways chamber musicians communicate.

For the uninitiated, chamber music is a small group of musicians (3–8 people) who play the absolute best music ever. The dynamic is very interesting: take the most standard form, a string quartet. String quartets consist of:
1st violin
2nd violin
viola
cello

The old joke “What does a string quartet consist of? A good violinist, a bad violinist, a former violinist, and someone who hates violinists” may have a small kernel of truth. In some pieces (particularly in classical, i.e. music from roughly 1760–1815) the first violin basically plays a difficult solo and the other three voices accompany. But in most pieces, all parts are equally important BUT they trade importance — at one point the cello may be the main voice, then the viola, and so on.

The opening 8 bars of this string quartet have spawned (inspired?) doctoral theses.

So to function effectively in a quartet, you always have to be aware of:
1. Who has the main voice at that particular moment
2. Who will have the main voice next
3. If you’re not the main voice, how prominent should your role be/how can you add to the mixture without overpowering?

Quartet members have many different communication styles: some (like me) like to talk a lot, to intellectualize, to explain, to understand the theory. Others like to demonstrate simply by playing (and frankly, your playing should be enough in an ideal world, but sometimes you have to hash things out verbally), others are a mixture.

Quartet is very intense — if you think pair programming is intense, imagine quartet programming and you have an idea of what it’s like. String quartets have been (justly) described as a marriage between four people.

So how do you communicate?

(NB: This is my experience — not at all intended to say it’s the right or only way — and I’d be really interested to hear from other chamber musicians what their thoughts are.)

First question: Is the chemistry good or not? If your musical styles don’t have some coherence, it’s probably not going to work. Quartet is all about learning and improving, but there has to be some basic agreement or else some MAJOR flexibility.

If the chemistry isn’t good, well, smile, get through it, and hopefully the next time you’ll have better partners. (That could be a different post — how to handle a situation where the chemistry isn’t great.)

But if the chemistry IS good — things get different.
1. Fundamental rule: listen more than you talk. You’ll probably end up with an equal balance but it’s really important that the focus be on the other person’s ideas and playing. This means that the other people feel heard, and important, which means that they will contribute with 100% energy.

2. It’s clear whether you respect someone’s playing, and if that understanding is there, you can be a lot more direct. With people I really trust and whose playing I adore, I have no problem saying, “Why are you doing that? Doesn’t sound good.” They know I love their playing and I am simply trying to make it better.

3. Culture matters. Americans and Dutch, for example, are much more likely to speak like in #2 directly whereas the English might say “You sound absolutely spiffing, my dear chap, but just wondering if you might possibly consider doing it this other way just the once, although I’m sure it’s absolute poppycock?” Be aware of these differences.

4. Always try the other person’s idea with 100% enthusiasm. One of my favourite quartet memories was in undergrad when my cellist and I had opposite ideas about how a phrase in a Brahms string quartet should go. We tried both ideas with such conviction that at the end, we preferred each others’! There’s usually more than one way to do something, and trying someone else’s way means you learn.

5. If there are two equally valid ways to solve a problem or approach a situation, choose the way the other person wants. You’ll learn something, and the other person will feel validated.

Right, that’s it for now — may update more as the thoughts occur!