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Vietnamese Experience Tour photo

Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #7


Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

January 2, 2018

parking lot full of motorcycles covered in traps

How the Vietnamese National Symphony gets to work…

After three days off from this concert repertoire, it is time to renew our preparations for the performance on Friday. This is one of the hardest working orchestras that Leslie and I have ever witnessed. After the two double rehearsals on my concert repertoire last Thursday and Friday, the VNSO had rehearsals on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday for Mondays New Year’s Night performance at the opera house. They had Tuesday morning off and then start again this afternoon with me. They will rehearse every day this week, perform on Friday, then maybe get a day off (depending on who you talk to) before starting again. I asked Thang when he thought the orchestra would get a break next, he thought the 18th of January!!!

Lan brings her daughter and violin soloist Nhi to our hotel for a rehearsal. The concerto has now been with Nhi for a couple of years and she has rethought much of her approach to the famous work. We then head out for lunch at a ramen place. Certainly Leslie and I have had ramen before, but not like this! The broth was thick, the noodles heavy, and quite filling. After lunch we pick up our ride to the hall where we have the first rehearsal on the Bruch violin concerto. The VNSO has added a new first violin, Leslie Stewart Kenney! On Sunday at the concert I noticed there were twelve first violins in the section and mentioned to Lan that we had not had more than nine at any rehearsal thus far. The conversation evolved on the way back to the hotel as far as availability of violins and suddenly, Leslie is part of the section! At the beginning of today’s rehearsal, she is introduced to the orchestra and now we have ten firsts.

We run the Bruch concerto with Nhi and the familiarity of the work helps the orchestra pull the music together quickly. Every orchestra has its own personality, often geared to the hall they play in. We have been rehearsing in a smallish rehearsal hall, but having heard the orchestra onstage over the weekend helps. The Dvorak is also coming along, but it is a new piece to the orchestra, so there is much to teach them in terms of the style of the great Czech composer vs. the sound and music of Aaron Copland. It is a long rehearsal, lasting until 4:30.

After rehearsal, we gather up Nhi and head to a Chinese restaurant for some roast duck and many other dishes. Once again, we are whisked into a elegant private room and are waited attentively by a very friendly staff. We eat until be are fully stuffed – again. Our Wednesday rehearsal will be in the morning so an early night is a welcome one.

~ Submitted by Wes Kenney, Director of Orchestras

I show up to the rehearsal planning to sit last chair in the first violin section, but Lan insists that I sit on the fourth stand (out of five). My stand partner is a young man in his mid-twenties who joined the orchestra just a few years ago. He is extremely attentive to every detail in the music and marks all bowing changes as soon as they are made. It is a great pleasure to sit next to someone who is as serious as I am about playing in orchestra – and I feel that in spite of all of our differences (age, gender, ethnicity) we have an immediate bond.

~ Submitted by Leslie Stewart, Violin Professor

Vietnamese Experience Tour photo

Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #3


Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart, who is also the director of CSU’s Master of Music, Music Education Conducting Specialization, are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

December 29, 2017

The day began the same as the previous day with another international breakfast in the hotel and then the 30 minute drive to rehearsal. On the way to the hall, we pass several Starbucks, Coffee Beans, and a chain called Highlands Coffee that is one of the locals favorites. Coffee houses are ubiquitous in this city and Vietnamese coffee is thick and strong. They drink it with warmed heated sweet milk (might be what we consider condensed) and it is delicious. Tea with honey and lime is another regular warm drink. A coffee house is next door to the rehearsal space and we end up there during the breaks each day.

There are construction projects in various stages everywhere in the city. Something we saw in South Vietnam three years earlier were three to five story buildings that were no wider than the storefront business they were built above. This is true here, but it is not as pervasive. Because our hotel is situated near Westlake – the largest lake in the city – we see many upscale apartment complexes lined up along its shore. In this way, parts of Hanoi reflect many waterside resort communities when looking to the sky. But at their base, the traffic reminds us that we are very much in a busy Asian metropolis.

Today’s rehearsal plan is the same as yesterday’s, Copland in the AM and Dvorak in the PM. Just before rehearsal begins, the personnel manager of the orchestra comes to me and gives me a list of people who will be late or missing that day, something that he did the previous day and will do later in the afternoon. As a conductor, one can only smile and say thank you for the information and make the best of it. It also gives me the idea that by the last half hour of rehearsal we could run the entire Copland. The piece is coming along and there is still all of next week’s rehearsals to refine the performance.

Lunch that day is at Lan and Thang’s apartment and they are gracious hosts. We take a five minute walk to get there (although Lan did offer to take me on her motor scooter…hmmm). Nhi is there and we chat while waiting for Thang and Leslie to arrive back from her morning activity which was to teach a conducting masterclass. The lunch is extensive and wonderful! It is hard to believe that Lan manages to be a violinist, mother, shopper, cook, housekeeper, gracious host, and I’m sure many other things and always does so with a smile. After lunch we retire to the front room and take a 30 minute nap before heading back to rehearsal.

Orchestra group rehearsingThe Dvorak is up for the afternoon and we spend quite a bit of time that day discussing articulations and how to make them different from the Copland. In this way we start infusing more elegance into their sound. They take this information and after awhile the idea begins to manifest itself in line and sustained color. Again, the communication can be slow going, but patience and continuous energy on my part seems to go a long way. We end with a run through of the recap and coda of the Finale and call it a day.

Rather than heading back to the hotel, we return to Thang and Lan’s place to clean up, a quick nap, then head for a special dinner on the 62nd floor of an office building. The top ten floors of this tower is an intercontinental hotel, and it’s splendor and views are breathtaking. We have Japanese BBQ (think Benihana, only better) that has several courses ending in a Kobe beef steak. It is an extraordinary experience to say the least. We head back to the hotel afterwards and plan to stay in our hotel room most of the next day just to recover.

~ Submitted by Wes Kenney, Director of Orchestras

Vietnamese National Symphony OrchestraI spend the morning with three conducting students at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. Two are instrumental conducting majors, the third is a choral conductor. I start with the most experienced student, who is in his junior year, and has prepared the “Egmont” Overture by Beethoven and Liszt’s “Les Preludes.” Two staff pianists are seated together at the piano in front of him and are doing their best to approximate a full orchestra.

This student obviously knows both scores quite well, but his range of baton technique is rather limited. I try to explain that if he does not show more contrasts in the music (whether they be in articulation or dynamics), musicians will stop looking at him and will only respond (or not!) to what they see written in the music. He politely tries to imitate me but his habits are so ingrained that it is difficult for him to do anything differently.

However, when he sees me work with the second student on the slow movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, it seems that a “light bulb goes off.” He not only helps translate my words into Vietnamese for this student, but also shows him how to make a difference between conducting with lightness or heaviness. I also point out ways in which this student can mark his score so that these dynamic differences do not “surprise” him.

The 3rd student brings in a small choir of her friends to sing a piece by Eric Whitacre. She is quite earnest and asks intelligent questions about how to show various entrances. I suggest using her left hand for some of these cues and she is able to implement this technique immediately.

All of the students are eager to hear about our graduate conducting program at Colorado State University, so I give them brochures. The first student is anxious to meet Wes, so I offer to introduce them at the end of this afternoon’s rehearsal with the VNSO.

In the afternoon, Ling (who played solo Bach for me yesterday) plays first violin in a string quartet, which has prepared music by Mozart, Haydn, and Borodin. This group of enthusiastic and talented young women has been together for at least six months, and obviously enjoys playing together. There is almost no language barrier as they quickly respond to all of my suggestions with eagerness. They are used to teasing each other as well as laughing at themselves and it is a total joy to work with them.

~ Submitted by Leslie Stewart, Violin Professor, Director of Master of Music, Music Education Conducting Specialization

Vietnamese Experience Tour photo

Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #1


Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

December 25 to 27, 2017

There is something to be said about international travel in regards to patience. The cliche “hurry up and wait” absolutely applies here. At the LAX international terminal we waited an hour to check in at the desk, then another hour to get through security (it WAS Christmas and they had only one TSA agent looking at documents…at least he was in a good mood.)

After a 13 hour flight to Seoul and then a five hour flight to Hanoi, we then waited a couple of hours to get our Visas in working order collected our luggage and were met by Lan and Thang, the couple that had come to Fort Collins with their violinist daughter Nhi a couple of years back. Lan is the concertmaster of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra, and her husband Thang is a violin teacher and a professor at the Vietnam National Music Academy.

busy Vietnamese streetThe day was rather dreary and rainy, but we caught glimpses of modern bridges and skyscrapers on the way into town for lunch. This was overlooking a lake that is as large as Horsetooth Reservoir. We then were shown to our hotel where we collapsed for a few hours before going to dinner with Thang, Lan, Nhi, and their son Long.

On the way, we discovered how challenging Hanoi traffic can be. Motorbikes swarm the lanes with cars and the only way to make progress is to push forward. The savvy Hanoi driver knows when to wait and when to go. At times progress is limited to a few feet at a time and others there is clear lanes around you. Beware the motorbike rider who decides that traveling in the opposite side of the road against traffic is the best route! Some close calls can result.

Leslie went off to get a massage and I just went back to the room for a blessed evening of sleep. Tomorrow would be a full day!

~ Submitted by Wes Kenney, director of orchestras at CSU

Life is rarely straight-forward graphic of graphic

A Musical Life-Not Always a Straight Line!

Hello everyone,

I hope you have enjoyed a good holiday weekend. Save your energy, because it is a long road until Thanksgiving break. There is already a cold bug making its way through the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance at CSU, so do remember to take care of yourselves!

I mentioned in my last post about wearing a lot of hats as a musician and teacher. Allow me to give you some of my background and how I got to Colorado State University.

I grew up in the Detroit area, and started playing viola in fifth grade. I am forever grateful to my public school teachers and my private teacher for helping me set goals, work hard, and always learn. My undergraduate degree is from Indiana University; even though it is a huge music school, learned so much about practicing, hearing great performances, and making life-long friends. My private teacher was a violist in the Detroit Symphony, and that was my goal-to have the skills to audition and play in an orchestra. That is a blog post all by itself, but let me just say it was practicing 6-8 hours a day, and even when I felt I played well, I didn’t always get the job. I moved back to Detroit and did a lot of free-lancing and did get a job with a semi-professional orchestra of U.S. and Canadian players. One part of the job was establishing a violin/viola studio on the U.S. side, to complement a large program in Canada. I had done some teaching, and worked with Mimi Zweig at IU, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure I had the patience to be a teacher. But, it was an opportunity, so I took the job. It was a lot of work, but I discovered that I really enjoyed it, helping students learn, and getting to know them.

I was there for three years, and then went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for my Master’s and a Certificate from the Chamber Music Institute. Chamber music had been a part of my life since high school, but as an undergraduate, I didn’t even think of that option for a career. (Hint-keep your options open!). I came to Colo. in 1985 to join the Da Vinci Quartet, in residence at the University of Denver and Colorado College. The quartet became a non-profit two years after I joined, which was a huge learning curve about non-profit work. I realized that I really needed to have non-musical skills as well as the musical ones! For a time I was in charge of the budget for the organization, and then took over the job of booking concerts. We played concerts in the U.S., competed in the Shostakovich International Quartet Competition in 1991 (the year that the Soviet Union dissolved), and recorded. And we rehearsed-sometimes as much as four hours a day. I also starting building a private studio.

In 2004 I was invited to teach at Colorado State University, and for eight years I was commuting from Colorado Springs once a week for several days; I am grateful to one of my colleagues who let me stay with her. Remember the hats I mentioned? All the work I did as a member of the Da Vinci Quartet served me well in managing my time, planning my teaching, and having the opportunities to travel and perform or present at conferences. I also realized that all arts students need those extra-musical skills I just mentioned-everything from writing a cover letter and putting together a resume, to finding collaborators for a project, to developing programs for underserved populations, and many more besides. That lead to planning what is now the LEAP Institute for the Arts (Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Arts Advocacy, and the Public), for which I am the undergraduate coordinator. Plus, I am also the coordinator of CSU’s graduate quartet program, which brings in students from the U.S. and abroad. It’s been a rewarding experience to share my 18 years of quartet life with them.

So the hats: I am a teacher, a performer, an adviser, a coach, and member of several committees. If you’re wondering how I balance it all, you’d be right in thinking that it’s a challenge. Some days are better than others, and the beginning of the semester seems to bring some kind of problem that I had anticipated, and so didn’t plan for it. The most challenging part right now is keeping on top of my recital program, which is on Sept. 18.

Think about the hats you may be wearing as a musician after you graduate. Besides your love of music and performing, what else gets you excited? Is it teaching, either public or a private studio? Is it orchestral playing? Is it starting a non-profit or your own chamber group? The time to start thinking about this is now, not after you graduate.

Next time the topic will be planning, with some tips for how to create your own success map, sprinkled with some tales of my own.

See you all in a few weeks.

Margaret Miller

Margaret Miller pictured playing the viola

String Area Blog #1: First day of class

Hello, everyone! Welcome to the String Area blog from the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at Colorado State University.These bi-monthly postings will focus on a variety of topics, from preparing for auditions, being in music school, to having a career as a musician. There will be postings from string faculty – Dr. Ron Francois, Dr. Forest Greenough, Prof. Barbara Thiem, Prof. Leslie Stewart, and Prof. Margaret Miller – and guest postings. Please feel free to contact me (Margaret Miller) if you have topics you’d like covered, or if you have any questions.

August 24, 2015: First day of classes….or how am I going to get everything done???
I’m sure that the first day of classes brings a variety of emotions to you: everything from excitement to anxiety, to nervousness, and everything in between. I feel that way, too! I always look forward to seeing the returning students, as well as new students. Orchestra seating auditions are completed, as the first concert is at the end of Sept., in the fifth week of the semester. Yes, you read correctly!

Life happens fast at the university level, and one of the issues that comes up quickly is how to manage time so it doesn’t manage you. We all have different, unique ways of working. You might be a planner, or you might wait until the last minute to practice/finish that theory assignment, etc. Or you might be a combination of those two models. What I have discovered is that if I have a plan for practicing/assignments for the week, then I can be much more efficient with that chunk of time. For practicing, try not to work more than an hour at a time, as your brain and your body need a break. You have a lot of music to learn- for your lessons, for orchestra, and for chamber music. Experiment with how you divide your practice time, and know that some days you might not get to everything on your list. Remember, it’s about quality, not quantity.

Speaking of practicing, time for me to get to my recital program. We hope you enjoy reading this blog – let’s connect on Sept. 8.
~ Prof. Margaret Miller