Graham Johnson Masterclass: What I Learned


Ashley Danyew | Graham Johnson Masterclass Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a masterclass presented by Graham Johnson at Eastman. What a privilege to learn from someone so wise and with so much experience! Eastman students performed eight songs of Schumann and Brahms (one by Schubert). Graham Johnson's perspective on music and performance was inspiring and enlightening.

Here are a few things I took away:

- The original key of a song has a certain color and quality - be wary of alternate keys and transpositions that change the mood and character of a song. - All ritardandi in Schumann's music are "local" or temporary, though often, a return to tempo is not indicated in the score. - The joy of performing is in the challenge, risk, and danger of the musical performance. "Go for the challenge and let it be an enriching experience." - Choose a tempo that leaves room for communicating the text and character of the song. Make it sound as if the thoughts or actions of the character are occurring in the moment, for the first time. - Do not play (or sing) "off the voice." A crooning, whispery sound does not travel expressively - it must be supported. - To the singer: listen to the piano and harmonize with it. - "Cultivate [your] tone." - "All lieder requires time for the notes to be sung, not barked or spoken." - Never allow yourself to go on automatic pilot. "Don't ever find yourself going through the motions. How can that engage your heart?" - Music of the nineteenth century reflects a period that had more time. Consider this when choosing tempi for performance (versus the fast-paced "broadband" culture of the world today). - "We've got to get this sense of communing [between singer and pianist]. . .it's an important part of what we do." - Accompany what is there in the moment, rather than the ideal in your head. - Pianists often sit in the composer's [Schubert] hot seat, playing music he wrote for himself to play. - "What's the message?" What are you trying to convey? - Brahms "treated his songs like a private diary of emotions." - The secret is: more time. - "Intimacy is part of what lieder is about. . . .Less sound, more feeling."

If you ever have the opportunity to attend a masterclass with a world-class musician, I hope you take advantage! It will change the way you think about, hear, and create music.

Eastman Weekend

Last weekend was Eastman Weekend and with over 550 alumni in town there was much to celebrate!  Since it was Steve's and my first time attending alumni events as alumni (and not just students), we tried to take advantage of as much as we could.  Here's a glimpse of our first Eastman Weekend experience: On Friday night, we celebrated the 15th anniversary of Eastman's Arts Leadership Program (of which Steve and I are both alums), attended a welcome reception with the dean, and enjoyed a jazz concert in tribute to Rayburn Wright (who taught at Eastman from 1970-1990).  Many of his students returned to play on the concert so there were many wonderful guest artists.  We may have snuck out for pizza at intermission - it was a long day!

On Saturday morning, we were interviewed as alumni to discuss the role the Arts Leadership Program has played in our careers and then we scrambled to get to the market, do our shopping, grab lunch, and be back at school by 1 p.m.  In the afternoon, we attended an awesome workshop with Fifth House Ensemble out of Chicago (the Executive Director and her husband are both Eastman alums!).  They talked about innovative programming, interdisciplinary performance, and the nuts and bolts of building a business and gave us lots of good things to think about.

Later in the evening, we attended the opening concert of the Prismatic Debussy Festival.  This month, we're celebrating what would have been Debussy's 150th birthday and Eastman has put together a month-long festival of scholarship, concerts, and visual presentations to celebrate the occasion.  It was so exciting to witness the first concert!  Many of Eastman's large ensembles performed and Eastman's graduate dean shared insightful narration and video projections throughout the program.  It was a wonderful concert!

If you're in the area and would like to attend some of the Prismatic Debussy events this month, see the schedule here.

New Student Orientation

Last week was New Student Orientation at Eastman.  It feels a little surreal - I am so, so grateful to be back.

Orientation Week generally includes advising sessions, placement exams, meet-and-greet events, tours, and a few special events for all the new students.  For me, the week looked like this:

  • Day 1: a meeting with my advisor to discuss course options, an appointment to get my new ID card, and an info fair on local organizations
  • Day 2: breakfast with the deans and a TA meeting
  • Days 3 and 4: placement exams (and three more meetings)
  • Day 5: registration day

Amidst the flurry of excitement, there were a few stressful moments.  First, those dreaded placement exams. 

A little back story: I've been studying Renaissance music history (in great detail) and counterpoint (Renaissance through Early Classical) for a month now.  (You see, when I started my masters at Eastman a few years ago, I passed both the music history and the theory placement exams.  Now, as a returning student, I was only required to take certain portions of each test.)  I was ready for the tests but it's still a lot of pressure.  If you don't pass these tests, you're required to take extra (remedial) courses before graduating.  Not only does that add hours to your schedule but it also costs more than a pretty penny. 

Anyway, I walked into the history exam on Wednesday and got a copy of the test.  Because I had taken it before, they included a copy of my previous scores in the packet but I realized right away I was looking at someone else's scores.  Come to find out (after taking the test anyway), I passed everything the first time and didn't need to take this test at all.  They had the wrong placement exam on file the whole time.  Seriously.

Naturally, I treated myself to a lemon cookie from my favorite bakery on the way home.

The second most stressful part of the week - course scheduling.  I walked into my first advising meeting of the week bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with a 3-page list of courses I wanted to take with credits, days/times, and teachers already written out.  Yes, I'm that girl.  The problem was not my level of preparedness; the problem was that most of the courses on my list were already full.

I won't tell you how many times I rewrote my schedule in five days.

By Thursday, I finally had four classes that were still open and did not conflict with my TA schedule and I had approval from the dean to add an additional credit to this semester.  Then, I went to register.  One of the courses I had chosen was only open to theory majors and another course had waaaay too many projects and assignments.

After a small meltdown, Steve and I looked through the list one more time and found a course that was still open.  Thank goodness.  In the end, it's an eclectic mix: theories of human development, sacred music, studio teaching, and 19th century music history.  It's a perfect sampler of everything I am hoping to incorporate into my program of study.

Year 1 starts today!

The Premiere: Follow-Up

Well, we're back from our whirlwind trip to Rochester... and we're working on getting back in the swing of things. It's a little more than six hours each way and while we both love road trips, it was a little taxing to drive there and back in the span of three days.  On the way there, we were very productive: we mapped out an agenda for the wedding rehearsal (processional order, who sits where, etc.), made to-do lists for the days leading up to the wedding, made a list of things left to buy, and wrote down a list of emails to send this week.  On the way home, one of us drove most of the way and one of us took a series of short naps (okay, I confess - I just couldn't keep my eyes open!).

Nevertheless, it was a great trip.  We arrived in Rochester around 6:00 p.m. on Sunday and settled on Dinosaur BBQ for dinner.  Y'all are probably thinking, "Barbeque?  In upstate New York?"  Let me tell you, it's delicious and authentic and in all the time we lived in Rochester, we never visited the restaurant!  We ordered a pulled pork sandwich and half of a rack of ribs (along with several sides: cajun corn, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, cornbread, and baked beans).  We ordered a piece of Blackjack Pie to go (pecan pie with Jack Daniels and chocolate chips).

We spent most of Monday soaking up Gibbs Street: Eastman's Main Hall, Java's, sitting in on an RPO rehearsal (Steve), surprise visits with professors and friends, and observing the Wind Ensemble dress rehearsal.  This was the first time either of us heard Steve's new piece ("Distant Moons") - great experience.  The director even asked him to come up on stage to give a few comments!  Reason #54 for upgrading to a phone with a camera.  We changed into our evening attire, had dinner down East Ave. at Veneto - a wood-fired sausage, pepper, and onion pizza with salad - and even had time for a cup of coffee (and our third visit to Java's) before the concert at 8:00 p.m.

This was a combined concert for the Eastman Wind Orchestra and the Eastman Wind Ensemble.  Here is the program:

Eastman Wind Orchestra: Husa: Smetana Fanfare Camphouse: A Movement for Rosa Holst: Suite in F (100th Anniversary of the work)
Eastman Wind Ensemble: Danyew: Distant Moons Cahn: Night Ride for Timpani Sierra: Carnaval (premiere)

As a side note, the Eastman Wind Orchestra is the school's freshman/sophomore wind ensemble, focusing on standard wind band classics, music for chamber winds, new music for wind ensemble and transcriptions.  The Eastman Wind Ensemble is America’s leading wind ensemble, and has frequently toured and recorded.  Its core of about 50 performers includes undergraduate and graduate students performing wind ensemble music from the 17th to the 21st centuries.

"Distant Moons" is a work based on the black and white photography of American icon Ansel Adams.  Musically, the piece is full of contrasts, imitating the light/dark, near/distant, high/low contrasts of Adams' work.  "I can see Ansel Adams' work when I listen to your piece," a woman said to Steve at the end of the piece.  It was so exciting to be a part of the audience for this world premiere!

The Premiere

Today, we are back at Eastman.  It's a perfect time in the semester to escape for a few days and what better reason than for the world premiere of one of Steve's pieces for wind ensemble!  Yes, the Eastman Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Dr. Mark Scatterday will be premiering "Distant Moons" tonight at 8 p.m. in this hall.  This is the inside of Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, by the way.  The chandelier is one of my favorite features. A few things I am looking forward to during this trip:

- Hearing the whole program tonight - it's been such a long time since we've been to a concert! - A walk down to Orange Glory for the best lemon cookie in the world - Visiting with teachers and friends - Quiet dinner out (still trying to settle on a restaurant!) - Apple Cider from Java's

While we're still quasi-working during our visit, I think it's important for us to set everything aside (at least for part of the day) and take a breather.  The past few weeks have been crazy with school, teaching, choirs, and wedding planning and the next few are going to be just as busy.  (I'm dreaming about ivory vs. white tablecloths, y'all.)  I just keep reminding myself how important it is to prioritize and give 100% of myself to one. thing. at. a. time.  Grace, not perfection.  This is not a multitasking competition (though, I think I would be awesome at that).  The joy is in the journey!

The Eastman Era

A phrase commonly spoken by many Eastman alumni, my own “Eastman Era” is coming to an end.  Of course, a threshold like this brings moments of reflection and thoughts of “where did the time go?” mixed with anticipation of what is to come and excitement of beginning a new adventure. It was August of 2008 when I first arrived in Rochester following a long move from Georgia.  Everything was new and exciting… though, like most things, I had to get through a period of adjustment before I felt like I really fit into life in the city and life at Eastman.  From the very first semester, I had wonderful teachers who guided and encouraged me to be the best that I could be.  Settling was never an option.  Through classes, coachings, rehearsals, and performances, I met great colleagues and learned much about the art of music.

When overwhelmed by my first semester of work and expectations, time felt like it was standing still.  Now, it’s a blur.  Looking back always makes time feel shorter somehow.  I have grown much in my recognition of who I am as an artist and a musician and how I can contribute to the field.  I have learned how to ask questions, teach myself, work hard, and achieve my goals.  I credit this to the support of my professors – in particular, my primary teacher, Dr. Jean Barr – and those who have been a part of my Eastman experience.  This is a time of my life that I will never forget.


The degree recital.  Such a formal term.  It is a milestone in the music degree program and here at Eastman, it means the opportunity to play in the great Kilbourn Hall.  Today, officially April, the recital is finally within sight.  This is the week of preparation, rehearsal, final touches, nervousness, excitement.  I have the great opportunity to premiere several new works on this program so I thought I would share a little bit of the musical experience with you in preparation for Monday’s performance. The recital program is comprised of works by Eastman composer, Steve Danyew (also saxophonist on the program and conveniently, my boyfriend!).  The program order is as follows:

Back Lot (Danyew) for mezzo soprano, saxophone, and piano Fantasy No. 1 (Danyew) for viola and piano Hers Was a Beautiful Soul (Danyew) for marimba and flute Nocturne II* (Danyew) for solo piano Poem (Hartley) for saxophone and piano Nocturne IV* (Danyew) for solo piano Come Home* (Danyew) for saxophone and piano

*world premiere

The first piece, Back Lot is a setting of a poem by Lia Purpura.  The nature of the poem is vague and non-descript, though the character portrays an underlying sense of longing throughout.  The music delicately matches this inward emotion in a very atmospheric manner.  The piece is reflective; hopeful, yet still yearning in the end.  The written intricacies of this composition are such that the mezzo soprano and saxophone often become one voice at times: joined and then inclined in different directions.  Similarly, the piano and saxophone timbres often blend into a brilliant, unified sound.  This piece was premiered this time last year at Eastman’s Warren Benson Forum.

The Nocturne set presents contrasts and an exciting exploration of the elements.  Nocturne II (part of a set of four) begins with low, rich, resonating chord.  As the performer, I find the opening section depicts night reflections in water – the part-writing is such that the hands mirror each other (each moving in the opposite direction).  Suddenly, brilliance appears in the upper register of the piano, as if the stars have instantly appeared.  The closing section is filled with wonder and thrill – darkness, light, and water’s reflection.  Poem, though not explicitly a “night-song” complements the outer pieces in this set through its presentation of contrasts (saxophone and piano timbres, among other things).  The piano begins with a very mechanical quasi-ostinato pattern.  The saxophone melody layered on top is very lyrical and mournful – in a way, the human voice of this piece.  The piano continues to portray “time” (a clock ticking relentlessly) every once in a while “chiming the hour” amidst the saxophone’s emotive melodies.  The set concludes with Nocturne IV, again exploring night, water, and starlight.  In this piece, however, there is the added experience of waves, wind, and rumbling thunder which builds into a frenetic storm.  The piece concludes with the calm following a storm – peaceful but also reflective, as layers of previous musical motives are woven together in the final moments.

Come Home originated from a portion of Fantasy No. 2 for viola and piano.  Steve recreated the piece for mezzo-soprano and piano using the text for my poem, Come Home.  Recently, we decided to transcribe the piece for saxophone and piano, the version included on this program.  The text, a letter from a mother to her son at war is a dramatic representation of love, longing, and remembrance.  The text is as follows:

Hear the rain, the darkness closing in now. Spring has already come without you.

Come home. The days are long and the nights pass slower, Darker even. Still, I keep writing to you. Come home, my son, my love.

Dark the night, the world asleep until morning, Resting in freedom. How I miss you.

Come home. I think of those days A sweet little boy, your smile and laughter and eyes so bright. Come home, my son, my love.

As the dawn awaits the sun each morning So my heart awaits that morning when you

Come home, my son, my love.

Now listen, I want you to know I need you Please be safe, please take care and know that I love you, my son.

Copyright 2008 Ashley Danyew