University of Texas guest instructor David Neubert warmed up the double-bass master class with an easy, virtuosic tune, B.B. Wolf. Next, it was William Torres's turn to try a waltz on an instrument that easily matched his height. The practice piece was Valse Miniature by Serge Koussevitzky. As the almond-skinned Puerto Rican faced five other students and University of Houston double bass professor Dennis Whittaker, he looked tense. It was his first time playing with a piano accompanist, who sat behind him. Neither William nor the others had ever played with her before. It was difficult enough to launch into a waltz tempo on the long fingerboard without worrying about what the pianist was doing. The young bass player stared at the bow fiddle's belly while the room chatter faded.
His first run-through sounded flat. Too many off-key whole notes came across as ear-needling half-tones. He tried changing the angle of his bowing, but the longer he played, the more his melody dragged. He sped up at each reprise but had a tough time injecting a light, ballroom spring into the step of the waltz. Every second seemed painful, but finally he finished the piece. When it was over, the room applauded.
William is one of 85 members of the Texas Music Festival (TMF) Orchestra, the centerpiece of University of Houston's Moores School of Music summer residency program. It's for university students, teachers and music professionals from all over the world. Now in its tenth year, the music camp, which began June 6 and finishes July 9, includes nonstop chamber performances by the festival's artist faculty, an array of master classes and nonstop weekend performances by the TMF Orchestra. "It gives everyone a chance to work on music skills without the distraction of having to teach, go to school or worry about making a living for the month," says Alan Austin, TMF general manager. Young musicians also get the chance to prepare a pretty hefty repertoire: works by Ernest Chausson, Carl Nielsen, Antonin Dvorak, as well as masterworks performed less often. At this camp, there is no such thing as a leisurely six-week rehearsal schedule, something university orchestra students often take for granted.
Besides the bass master class, TMF arranges classes for violin, bassoon, oboe, viola, trumpet, trombone, percussion, cello and flute. Master classes give students a chance to play in front of a guest teacher. "Constructive criticism" comes by the truckload. There's no rush to finish quickly. No dodging out for a math test. No need to escape the technical drills to do a quick chemistry lab. Nothing but long stretches of music instruction. It's summer vacation put to best possible use in intimate, air-conditioned studios run by excellent guest artists and faculty.
William wasn't the only one whose playing had become a little jittery in the bass master class. After he finished playing the waltz, Neubert clued him in on a few basics. Bass players, more than any other orchestra player, are notorious for playing off-key. Neubert told him the importance of repetition, the need to constantly exercise muscle memory to get a precise hit on the strings every time. Aware that he needed to pull his pitch up and quicken his tempo, William took the Valse once more from the top. This time his tempo surged in precise time to the sound of the ballroom dance beating in his head.
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As the second bass student began his turn, three young flutists practiced in Claire Johnson's flute studio in the same building upstairs. Auburn-haired Canadian native Megan Winsor-Lovely struggled for the perfect vibrato, but her tongue kept getting in the way. Tongue position matters little to the bass player, but to the professional flutist, it can be a nemesis. While the Midland Symphony Orchestra principal blew the same note over and over, Johnson held the underside of three fingers midway under her chin as part of a lesson in breathing and relaxation. "Let the tip of your tongue be on your teeth and slow down," said the Southern Methodist University professor who also teaches at the Moores School two days a week. "Keep it slow, and don't play loud." As her two peers watched, Megan continued to blow. This time Johnson stopped her, realizing she had air in her cheeks. "No, you're tightening this muscle. This is your tongue," Johnson said. Megan tried it again. This time the silvery woodwind released a rich, silky, colorful sound. Johnson liked it. She asked the student what she thought.
"I thought it sounded kind of pale," Megan said. "Blowing the note that way felt too easy somehow." She wasn't used to relaxing that way when she played the note. The other two confirmed it sounded brilliant.
Besides Megan, the flute master class included Japanese-born Yuji Kano, who traveled from the New England Conservatory in Boston, and Susan Brown, who came from Eastern Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. All aim to have serious concert careers with major symphony orchestras. All three came to UH to take their playing a few notches higher. Johnson said all three are whizzes at playing Bach sonatas and Mozart concerti, but they still have lots to learn.
The Texas Music Festival continues with the Floot Fire Concert on Friday, July 2, room 160, Moores School of Music, entrance 16 off Cullen. The Texas Music Festival Orchestra conducted by Klauspeter Seibel performs Saturday, July 3, at Moores Opera House, followed by the Houston Choral Festival Final Concert on Friday, July 9 at Moores Opera House. For ticket information, call (713)743-3313.