Monday, November 29, 2010

It's the most wonderful time...

If you're anything like me, you feel a slight (overwhelming?) sense of dread this time of year. You haven't started your Christmas shopping yet. You don't celebrate Christmas and you hate hearing the music in every single place you walk into (I celebrate Christmas and I still can't stand the music). You're a gigging musician and you're stretched waaaaaaaaay too thin next month. Or perhaps you have lectures and tests to prepare and exam time is looming.

Whatever the reason, there has to be at least ONE thing that you can look forward to during this crazy season! Maybe it's the work party where everyone gets to let their hair down. Or a big family dinner where you can stuff yourself with food right before you join the gym for New Year's...

I look forward to the time off from school, but not because I'm away from the students! It gives me time to review the previous semester and figure out how to make the next semester better. During the break between this Fall and Spring I'm going to brainstorm new ideas for my Music Appreciation class. I'm always looking for ways to get more interaction. This semester I tried some new things and my students absolutely loved it, so I'm also going to work more of that into my Spring plans.

So what about you? What are you looking forward to this holiday season?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fall 2010 - Favorite Moment

This is my favorite moment from the semester and quite possibly from my entire career at Pellissippi:

ME: What was I going to say next?
STUDENT: [Answers correctly] Do we get extra credit for being inside your head?
ME: No, you get counseling!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Career Choices

If you've known me for more than 2 seconds, you know that I love music. As one friend put it, I live music. I've spent my entire life, including the time in my mother's womb, surrounded by music. I was never told that I had to make a career in music; in fact, my mother asked me specifically not to become a music teacher because she basically wanted me to make a living in which I could afford nice things. *Side Note: Mom's a retired music professor. ;-)

Believe it or not, I actually started out looking at colleges for engineering. I had one or two schools offer me a full ride if I majored in engineering! I courted a few of them during my junior year of high school but by senior year I knew it was music for me and nothing else. I didn't even want to major in one thing and get a music minor, or  work toward a double major. I wanted to absorb more music--as much as I could--into my brain and soul for the next four years.

I changed my major from Music Performance to General Music so that I could focus on theory (UNCG doesn't have an undergraduate theory degree) and prepare for a Master's degree in theory. But wouldn'tcha know it--I got to UT, started off in music theory, then switched back to performance. I came full circle!

So here I am with a BA in Music and an MM in Viola Performance. I teach part-time at Pellissippi State Community College, teach privately (violin and viola) in my home, perform with symphonies and chamber groups in the area, and manage my own group (Robyn James Trio).

But I want more. I'm happiest when I'm creating music in smaller settings (read: not on a huge stage with 100 people) with other people who eat, sleep and breathe music like me. Occasionally I see glimpses of a life like this--when I perform with my friends and colleagues in the faculty recitals at Pellissippi, when I record and perform live with talented artists like Adam Whipple and the Dirty Guv'nahs, and also when I'm writing transcriptions or arrangements for assorted gigs and whatnot. The more I get involved with projects like these, the more I get compliments and encouragement from complete strangers (like students I cross paths with at Pellissippi), friends and peers, and even mentors (i.e. a former teacher from my graduate work saying "I didn't know you had 'rocker' in you. Don't hide it!").

So my non-rhetorical question is this: How do I make this happen? How do I go from doing this occasionally to doing it regularly and making a living with it? I don't want to give up teaching because I enjoy it, but I have lots of free hours during which I'd love to be making the music I teach people about every day. I'm open to suggestions, reprimands, cookie recipes...basically anything. Take the mic (aka the comment box)!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What if I don't wanna be 20 again?

As I approached my twenty-tenth ;-) birthday many people tried to encourage me with words like "30 is the new 20!" I don't know what their college days were like but I don't want to be 20 again! I was awkward and underweight and trying to find myself. I do miss having time set aside to practice though. And late night Papa John's and TV with Beth, one of my BFFs. If I could just have that part, I'd totally do 20 again.

To celebrate the beginning of a new decade in my life I had a party. I mean, really--what better way to do it? The theme was game night, as this is my favorite pastime. We sat around and talked, listened to music from Arrested Development*, watched the extended pilot from said show and ordered pizza. Once we actually got to the game part of game night (Apples to Apples, one of my favorite games) the pizza arrived. But we had fun! And I think we got through 1.5 rounds of Apples to Apples.

All in all, a good time was had. And I have photographic proof here! Enjoy.
Jeannine and Anne are all smiles!

*One of the best shows on the planet, in my humble opinion. I own all three seasons thanks to a ridiculous sale on Amazon a while back

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Special Requests

Some of you may not know this but I not only teach and perform music--I also arrange it. Sometimes for fun (yes, I'm that much of a music nerd) but more often than not it's because of a request, usually for a wedding. I try to honor all requests, as long as they're logical. I once had a friend ask if my string trio could perform "Rhapsody in Blue" and I had to politely decline.

Thankfully, ninety-nine percent of the requests are doable and I've had a BLAST with all of them. I just finished working on a couple of tunes for a friend's wedding next month--a theme (the main theme??) from A River Runs Through It and "The Blood of Cuchulainn," aka the Irish tune from the movie Boondock Saints. I think the bride and groom will be happy with my versions (arranged violin/viola, cello and piano).

My very favorite arrangement of all time, hands down, is "The Throne Room" from Star Wars: A New Hope. The bride sent me an mp3 and I purchased an arrangement for brass quintet. I changed some keys, re-worked some modulations, threw in some doublestops to fill in the harmonies and voilĂ --a totally friggin' AWESOME arrangement was born. And I'm not just tooting my own horn--you should've been there the first time we rehearsed it. We stopped somewhere through the first run-through because my violinist and cellist were majorly geeking out!! This arrangement is several years old but had never been recorded until yesterday. So here it is for you to enjoy!

I've also written arrangements for show choir. Boy, is that a different beast than string trio! I've done a few "oldies" as well as more recent pop tunes (couple of *NSYNC songs). A friend just asked if I'd arrange some current hits for her string orchestra, so I'm looking forward to that as well!

I really enjoy the process of learning a piece inside and out--really living with it--and then reworking it to fit whatever new configuration it is I'm arranging for. I've had the "Blood of Cuchulainn" stuck in my head for about five days now, but I love it! Any other arrangers out there have words of wisdom they want to give? Any other musicians have arrangements you'd like to share/geek out about? And of course, if you have any requests send them my way. I'll do my best to honor them!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I dream of... a music composition seminar?

I found another fun dream in my old blog and I had to share it with you. It's from about four years ago but as I read it, it feels like I dreamt it yesterday. It involves a little music composition/theory AND a former boy band member. Gotta love it.


I was at a HUGE church (we’re talking the size of a nice mall) with my friend Tyra for some kind of seminar. I guess it was on music composition or choral music because I remember having sheet music with "Ode to Joy" on it (although it was in Renaissance notation?!). I also remember a large overhead projector-type thing being set up and "Ode to Joy" being projected on the screen. One of the speakers (or maybe the only one?) was JC Chasez, formerly of NSYNC. He was very energetic and excited about the subject he was discussing, and he reminded me of a couple of teachers I had in college and grad school*. During his discussions, he would practically run around the room (a HUGE sanctuary) in order to make eye contact with more of the attendees, and several times I got to interact with him (*schoolgirl squeal*).

At one point we were discussing harmonization, and he sang a simple motive on the words "Alleluia, alleluia." Before harmonizing it, he wanted someone to change it up a little bit. I immediately thought of a simple change that would make it really awesome (and make whatever we wrote after it that much cooler) but of course, being me, I hesitated. He was RIGHT next to my pew (which was on the "stage left" side of the church, right next to the wall and windows; Tyra and I were sitting all the way on the end) when he asked, too. I finally got up the courage to raise my hand when he was on the opposite side of the sanctuary. I think he was actually hoping that I would raise my hand, because by that point several other people's hands were raised, and he looked around (right past some people directly in front of him who were volunteering!), craned his neck, and finally pointed across the sanctuary back to me!

Since I’m a music nerd I actually made visual aids. Here's what he sang:

As I said, I made a slight change, but it totally made it more interesting, harmony-wise:

After I sang it I explained that I'd changed the last note to give more possibilities for harmonies and he got all hyper and went "Yes! That's great! I'm so excited that I want to finish the whole song right now!" [This scarily reminds me of my own teaching style…!]

I remember two other things happening besides that:

1) At some point I ended up at the front of the room with JC, and I think Tyra was up there with me (maybe he was using us as assistants?). He mentioned that he needed to eat something during the upcoming break, and I JUMPED on that—no hesitation this time, haha—and in a split second I went "I can go with you if you'd like." Unfortunately he didn't seem to hear me (I think he went on talking about something else, or maybe I said it too quickly). So I turned to Tyra and said "He didn't catch that, did he?"

2) I wanted to go find my viola so that I could show off my instrumental skills to JC (since I'd already wowed him with my vocal prowess, HA!). So I went outside to find my car, hoping that I'd left my viola in there from a gig I had earlier [in real life it would’ve been inside with me, geez!]. But it was pitch black outside and I'd arrived when it was still light, so the parking lot looked very different. I could NOT find my car. I ran around in the cold and rainy night, dodging past the few people who were standing out in the lot talking (what were they doing?! It was COLD, and raining!). I started to panic and maybe even cry a little, and this sinister-looking guy asked me "You're afraid, aren't you?" (implying that I was afraid of getting mugged/attacked). I told him that I wasn't afraid; I just couldn't find my car.

Then it took me forever to find my way back into the church. Oh sure, there were lots of doors, but which one led to the sanctuary?? I finally found some big double doors that looked unfamiliar but safer than the smaller side doors I kept finding, and I asked someone nearby where these led to. They said "to the stage," in a very "duh" manner. Well exCUSE ME!! So I pulled back one of the huge doors, walked in, and ended up in the very middle of the pulpit in the sanctuary. That's right—on stage, front and center. But I didn't let it phase me. I just hurried to some stairs, hopped down, and ran to someone (but I don't think it was Tyra?) to tell them that I couldn't find my vacuum.

That's right. Somehow I'd gone from looking for my viola to looking for a vacuum. Some nosy guy overheard me and said "Since you're wanting to vacuum, could you use ours and vacuum the church?" I couldn't believe he'd just asked me that, and in front of all those people (although the group size had gone down, since we were apparently on a break)! I panicked because I didn't want to vacuum this place (wouldn't a church that big hire like, a team of people to do that work?), but I was afraid that it would get back to JC that I was a selfish and lazy person...?! But I still said no. The end.


What’s unique about this dream is that so many elements of it were taken from snippets of actual situations in my life. I guess sometimes my subconscious runs out of fresh, crazy material and uses actual memories and events!

*In case you were wondering, the aforementioned teachers are Dr. Walsh, my theory teacher from undergrad, and Clay Higgins, a Spanish teacher from grad school. Two of my favorite teachers!

Monday, July 5, 2010

We didn't start the fire...

This is an entry from an old blog (from summer a year or two ago), and I thought I'd share it with you all. It reads a little bit like one of my crazy dreams but it's a true story!

Okay, so yesterday was cool. I went to the KARM Thrift Store off Western and got an AWESOME coffee table and end table. They are all nice and dusted and Windexed now, and in my living room. My friend Glenn helped me pick them out and then had to run somewhere, so another friend Erik helped me move them. I then treated Erik to Ben & Jerry's to thank him for his help.

And that's when my car caught on fire.

Well, not the entire car. Just the alternator. But it was totally on fire. I smelled something funny as we approached Ben & Jerry's, so once we got there I popped the hood. We saw smoke, and then we saw the flames inside the alternator. Fun times. I called AAA for a tow, but they said that before they could tow it the fire had to be put out (duh). I was told to call the Fire Department, get them to okay it, then call AAA back. I called the Fire Dept. and then called my dad, because I didn't really like playing the Wait and Watch Your Car Go Up In Flames game. Dad said to put dirt on it. I was panicking and going "There's no dirt, I'm on a paved parking lot!" Then I had an idea. "Wait--Erik, go grab some of that mulch!!!" So he did, and I know it could've been a disaster, but the fire eventually snuffed out. And of course it was out by the time the Fire Dept. arrived to okay the car to be towed. *sigh*

So long story short--I went home (after Erik and I had B&J's sorbet, YEAH!), then this morning around 9:00 AAA towed me to Gabby's Alternator Repair. Thank God for living on Sutherland--it seriously has everything you could ever need. And I got my car back around 2:00. How awesome is that?

I'd say it's pretty nifty. Unfortunately I don't live in that uber-convenient part of town anymore but I still take my car to Buckner's, which is also off Sutherland. They're trustworthy guys and they do great work (and the same goes for Gabby's).

So, any memorable car/truck/bike moments from the peanut gallery? ;-)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I dream of... Seth Meyers and the RNC???

Time to share another weird dream with you, my faithful readers! ;-) This is fresh from my subconscious, as I dreamt it this morning. My dreams often occur in scenes, or at least that's how I remember them. So each paragraph is a scene.

DISCLAIMER: My subconscious sometimes endorses ideas/beliefs with which I and/or other people in my dream don't agree. Also, this is exactly what I remember; any social commentary you read into this is unintentional. I hate politics.

First I remember my friend Matthew sending me an email. Apparently he'd sent me a survey earlier and I hadn't completed it. The survey was hidden within the website of the Republican National Convention. I thought it was a little odd, but I said I'd complete it.

Next I was actually in a meeting of the RNC. We were in a large room with long banquet-style tables arranged into a square around the room. For some reason I think I was sitting at the head table. During the meeting I felt a drop of liquid hit my hand (my hands were in front of me on the table). I looked up and noticed that the ceiling was damp. The dripping was getting faster so we moved a bowl or something to catch the water. Unfortunately the damp spot on the ceiling was growing and starting to sag. Something was about to fall through and I was not staying around to find out what! A bunch of us scurried about trying to gather our belongings and leave before the disaster hit, but some people remained in the meeting as if they refused to acknowledge what was happening.

I remember running to the parking lot with some friends, including Seth Meyers. We were hauling all the stuff I'd managed to take out of the meeting hall. I'm not sure why, but this bundle included a Christmas tree. As we ran around in search of my car, Seth showed me some sheet music. It said "Smallville" across the top and he announced that he was playing Clark Kent in the musical adaptation of the TV show. I would've congratulated him but I was really frustrated that we couldn't find my car. I kept pushing the buttons on my key fob to make the car beep but we still couldn't find it.

So that's my most recent weird dream. It's shorter and not as eventful as others, but I thought I'd share nonetheless. If you haven't read my previous ones, definitely check them out!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

NYC Trip May 2010

I went on my first real vacation as a grownup last month (sad, isn't it?)! It only lasted 4 days, but you gotta start somewhere... Anyway, I went to the wonderful city of New York and visited two friends. It started out as an early birthday celebration for my birthmate Sarah and me (and myself? Sometimes I hate the English language). She showed me some sites, we saw the Daily Show and then saw more sites and a comedy show. Then I saw my BFStFDoFG® (Best Friend Since the First Day of First Grade) Mary and she showed me some more sites!

So here's the basic breakdown of where I went:

Monday: NYU Library and bookstore, Washington Square Park, Union Square, Strand Bookstore, L'Annam (yummy Vietnamese cuisine), Whole Foods (that place was HUGE) and the Staten Island Ferry.

Tuesday: Omonia Cafe (yummy Greek cuisine), bed (got a migraine), The Daily Show, Times Square, Hard Rock Cafe and Broadway Comedy Club (saw Steve Hofstetter, woohoo!).

Wednesday: The Bronx (including yummy pizza and Mexican food), Magnolia Bakery, Lincoln Center, Central Park (including Strawberry Fields) and other places for which I didn't catch the names.

Thursday: Neptune Diner (I love their menus--see the photos). The only reason I had time to visit Neptune is that my flight from LaGuardia got delayed 4 times!

The highlights were spending time with friends I hadn't seen in years, of course! Sarah and I have seen each other once or twice since grad school but I hadn't seen Mary since her wedding. Now she and her husband have two kids!!

I really enjoyed seeing the Daily Show, even though most of our time was spent waiting in line outside, haha! It was worth it because Sarah and I were FRONT AND CENTER in the audience. No photography was allowed inside so I can't show you how the studio looked. I can tell you this much--it's much smaller than I imagined! Here's a link in case you want to listen for Sarah's and my laughter. :-D The guest was author Sebastian Junger: Daily Show - Full Episode - May 11, 2010

Even though it was rainy and overcast on the day I spent with Mary, it was still a lot of fun and I still got some great photos! We visited Magnolia Bakery, which I'd never heard of until I discovered The Lonely Island's Lazy Sunday. "I love those cupcakes like McAdams loves Gosling!" Once we got to Central Park we weren't sure how we'd find Strawberry Fields, but all we had to do was follow the music! There was a man singing "Help!" as we got closer. By the time we got to him he had switched to "I'm a Believer" (sacrilege, ha!) but then he sang "Imagine." He encouraged the crowd to participate and I was lucky enough to get a few seconds of "Imagine" before my camera batteries gave out.

So be sure to check out all my photos and video at Enjoy!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Audience Etiquette

We've all been there. You're in the audience at a musical performance and someone starts to talk to the person next to them. Or s/he takes out a phone--or, heaven forbid, a laptop--and starts typing away. Or someone decides to slowly open the world's noisiest piece of candy EVER.

What do you do in that instance? Shoot them a mean glance? Ignore them? I think it depends on the situation, but recently I was forced to take matters into my own hands. Apparently I made the right decision, because about a dozen people thanked me afterward for doing so (I didn't even think anyone really noticed!).

A couple of weeks ago Pellissippi State Community College hosted their annual Student Honors Recital. Vocal and instrumental students (open to all students, not just music majors) auditioned earlier in the semester and the best of the best were chosen to perform on this occasion. It was a wonderful recital--I'm constantly amazed at the students we have at Pellissippi, and all the hard work they (and their teachers!) put into their crafts.

So, onto the recital. The first performer, Taylor, gave his best performance yet of "The Impossible Dream." It was truly awesome--except for the fact that, during the softest part of the song, an older woman a row in front of me leaned to her friend and whispered something about how she couldn't hear him. And when I say "whispered" I really mean spoke at a normal level, as if she were having a conversation which wasn't taking place during a musical performance. She was 3-4 rows from the front and Taylor had no problems with projection; maybe she couldn't hear him because it was during a rest in his part and the piano was playing quietly? The song wasn't over yet!!

But whatever, right? It happened once, some audience members sighed, the performance went on. But it didn't end there. This woman seemed to delight in being absolutely still and quiet in between songs/pieces and then waiting until during a performance to speak to her friend. I don't remember the exact number but during the third or fifth disruption I finally leaned forward and touched her very lightly on her shoulder. It took her a second or two to turn around but when she did, I put my finger to my lips and--as politely as possible--motioned for her to please be quiet. How did she respond?

She stuck her tongue out at me. A grown woman, probably someone's mother and someone else's grandmother, stuck her tongue out at me. But she didn't make any noise for the rest of the recital. I wish I'd shushed her sooner!!

I didn't even think much of it, but after the recital half a dozen or so students and fellow audience members came up to me and thanked me. I felt like a hero! :-) And the next day more students thanked me, including Taylor (who'd been filled in by his classmates).

I guess the moral of the story is this: If someone is disrupting your enjoyment of a performance, take a chance and try to politely silence them. You never know how many other people might be grateful for your small act!

**Favorite Moments**

I'd also like to mention a couple of my favorite moments during the recital:

  1. The one stagehand who moved stands and whatnot for the performaners was a very tall, slim man (I'm going to guess student). He was dressed nicely, in a button down shirt tucked into some khakis. The memorable part is that he was sagging his pants. I don't know how he managed this, because the dude was so skinny! That belt had magical powers. The talkative woman in front of me gained a few cool points when she leaned to her friend (in between performances, no less!!) and whispered "He's gonna lose his pants if he's not careful!" 
  2. Right before a flute student began her piece, a little girl behind me whispered to her mother "Is that a recorder??" I'd expect that to be reversed--a child asking if a recorder was a flute. It threw me off for a second, but it was so adorable!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Plastic musical instruments

As you read the title of this entry (or did you skip it and go right to the body, like I often do?) what did you think of? When I hear the phrase "plastic musical instrument" I think of those cheap, translucent recorders you can buy in the music stores. If I think a little bit longer I picture the nicer, Yamaha recorders that many of you played in elementary school (or play now, if you're an early music fan like I am). Then there's the bass that my friend Alex and I were discussing the other day--we decided that it would be really cool to create a bass made of plastic and fill it with water. T'would sound very...interesting. :-D

Did any of you think of LEGO? I certainly wouldn't have imagined those wonderful building blocks which are still in a drawer somewhere in my parents' house. O:-) Now when I think of LEGO, I think of that fabulous "Knights of the Round Table" ditty from Monty Python... But I digress!

I don't even remember how this came up in the conversation but I ended up telling my friend Deb about a cello which someone made out of LEGO. I promised that I'd find the info and share it with her; then it occurred to me that other people might be curious as well. And while looking up the cello I remembered that someone also made a harpsichord out of LEGO--one which actually plays!

So here, for you all to enjoy, are two musical instruments made (almost) entirely out of LEGO.

Cello by Nathan Sawaya, (Also check out Sawaya's Stephen Colbert)
Harpsichord by Henry Lim, (Be sure to listen to the sound clips)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why Music?

I know I've been silent for much too long, but I'm back now! And I have a question for all the musicians out there:

What made you choose music?

Was there a cute boy in band and you joined just so you could sit next to him? Did you hear the girl next door say she liked guitar so you bought one and taught yourself to play? Were you forced to take piano as a child and then discovered it wasn't so bad?

Everyone has a story. You might feel that yours is uninteresting but I'd like to hear it anyway. How about this--I'll tell you my boring story so you won't feel so bad about yours.

I heard music inside the womb. Not in some cosmic, music of the spheres sort of way. My dad loved to sing and my mother was a music professor. My brother and I are both professional musicians and I don't think a single person who knows our family was surprised by our choice!

My first instrument was the piano. I must've been 5 or 6 when I began. I enjoyed it, and I was pretty decent. A few years later I was given an opportunity to play in orchestra (in my county, orchestra began in 5th grade and band began in 6th). My parents went to the orchestra teacher to ask a very important question.

Mom and Dad: If Robyn ever decides to do this for a living, which instrument would be best?
Mrs. Swoope: Viola, because there are too many violinists and cellists in the world.

And there you have it, folks. That's how my relationship with the greatest instrument in the world began! O:-) I've picked up a few more since then, but piano will always be my first love and viola will always be my greatest love.

Now it's your turn!