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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

ON THE RADAR | How We Learned "The Cello Handshake" At RCM's Open House

By Robin Roger on November 27, 2017

Ludwig Van stops by RCM’s open-house for a sample of music courses, instruments, lectures, and performances and more.

Michael Occhipinti from the stage of Mazzoleni Hall, introducing the Jazz Ensemble Class (Photo: Robin Roger)
Michael Occhipinti from the stage of Mazzoleni Hall, introducing the Jazz Ensemble Class (Photo: Robin Roger)

Yesterday at the Royal Conservatory Holidays in Harmony Showcase Concert, when a group of grey-haired men with the somewhat weary but dignified air of elder statesmen emerged on the stage of Mazzoleni Concert Hall and took up their instruments, I was struck by how senior the jazz faculty at RCM is.

Though the two younger members of the ensemble, a female flutist with buoyant blonde hair and an energetic guitarist wearing a pork pie hat raised the average age slightly, I got the impression that this was going to be a presentation by retiring faculty.  To my delight, when the wise-looking saxophonist began to speak, I discovered how ageist my assumptions had been.

“We are the Wednesday night 9 p.m.  jazz ensemble class and Michael Occhipinti’s students” he explained, gesturing to the hipster with the guitar, who beamed proudly at his protégées.  “And we love our class.”  Even before they started playing it was easy to see the warmth and easy interaction between them, and I felt a sudden powerful yearning to be part of a band.  They then launched into an inspiring rendition of “Freddy the Freeloader” followed by the beloved ballad from Guys and Dolls, “If I Were a Bell”.

The jazz ensemble was one of four performances, which were presented as teasers to motivate the adults-only audience to try the demo classes that followed the concert.  While each performance made me eager to give the various instruments (including marimba, steel pan, viola, violin, fiddle, cello, piano and guitar) a try, the jazz ensemble was the only student performance, and for me, the most heartening.  I could picture myself not only warming up at the keyboard, but also warming up my soul in one of the practice studios at the RCM on one of the mid-week cold, dark nights that are about to overtake us.

During the break out sessions, I switched gears and joined a cello class, where Amber Walton-Amar took a group of six absolute beginners through the preparatory steps to getting a sound out of the instrument.  Anyone who has ever attended a concert should try playing each of the instruments, even briefly, to get a much more embodied sensation of what it’s like to create the sounds we enjoy so much.

I didn’t realize that cellists sit with a tuning peg behind their ear, a rather bizarre sensation that must make proper posture essential to avoid neck and scalp strain; or that before even holding a bow, it’s necessary to master “the cello handshake”, to ensure that extraneous weight has been released from the right arm before the bow is held.  And getting a “bow-hold” by holding my thumb in such a way that it can be pressed and released in a “boing-like” fashion would probably take hours of practice.

My admiration for cellists in general, and for Walton-Amar’s patience with this fledgling group in particular, increased enormously.  Later, when one of the students told me he planned to join the Learn@Lunch cello class, I could sense the appeal of stepping out of the office and joining a group of fellow music learners.

But I would be equally tempted to make time in my schedule for one of the less hands-on music appreciation courses.  For some time now I’ve had my eye on a course called How Music Works by Jamie Stager, who gave a condensed version of a class from the stage of Mazzoleni Hall, in which he played passages from a variety of compositions ranging from Bach to Jay Z to Dylan to explain the common features of the measurable aspects of music, including volume, pitch, contour, duration, timbre, direction, reverberation, melody, harmony, meter and form.  The amazing thing about music is that if we can experience it and produce it without knowing anything about how it happens, but we can also study it in complex and sophisticated depth for a lifetime.

Unfortunately for many adults, it is often a case of either-or, finding time to practice an instrument or clearing the schedule enough to take a music appreciation course.  I’m only half-joking when I say that if we recognized the contribution of music making as well as music-loving to positive and healthy ageing, we would devote more resources to facilitating this for an ageing population.  If we used our taxes, philanthropy and our imaginations maybe we would come up with music communes for seniors—how about a condo connected by an underground tunnel to the RCM, so that older adults could get to classes and practice studios without negotiating ice and snow?

OK, I’m getting carried away by the enthusiasm generated by the RCM Holidays in Harmony adults-only open house.  For now, it’s good enough that the RCM is only a few steps from the subway, and in easy lunchtime reach for a lot of adults who want to add a music break to their day.

#LUDWIGVAN

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Robin Roger

Robin Roger

Robin Roger is a psychotherapist who emphasizes the importance of learning new things as part of developing and maintaining mental wellness.She is a committed amateur pianist as well as a writer, book reviewer and frequent contributor to Ludwig Van.
Robin Roger
Robin Roger

Robin Roger

Robin Roger is a psychotherapist who emphasizes the importance of learning new things as part of developing and maintaining mental wellness.She is a committed amateur pianist as well as a writer, book reviewer and frequent contributor to Ludwig Van.
Robin Roger
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INTERVIEW | 'Maria By Callas', In Her Own Words, Makes Us Re-Think Everything We Thought We Knew About Her

By Anya Wassenberg on September 13, 2018

The documentary, which features never before seen footage that allows Maria Callas to tell her story in her own words, is a harsh look at the realities of fame and glamour.
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