Interview with Dr. Joanne Kong



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00:00:00 - Musical Background

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Partial Transcript: Riggs: Ok. Umm. So firstly, if you could just tell me a little bit about yourself and your musical background, in general.

Dr. Kong: Ok. So I’m Dr. Joanne Kong. I’m the coordinator of chamber ensembles here at the University of Richmond, in the Department of Music, I also work one on one with students, assisting them with their performance skills, interpretation, technique, just kind of overall development and I’ve been here for almost twenty years, and umm, I’ve been a musician pretty much all my life, and I love performing and working with people so that’s basically what I do

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Kong introduces herself and gives a general overview of her position at the University of Richmond

Keywords: Background; Chamber Ensembles; Musician; Performing; Students; University of Richmond

00:00:40 - History of Chamber Ensemble Course at University of Richmond/Benefits of Chamber Ensemble Work

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Partial Transcript: R: Umm, can you talk a little bit about umm the history of the chamber ensemble class, how it was formed, and your role in it up to now.

K: Right. I believe that the course began before I first came to U of R and at that point we had another ensemble in residence, The Shanghai String Quartet – have you heard them? –

R: Yes I have not heard them but I’ve heard of them. –

K: Yah, cuz they come here once a year still to perform and they created the initial model for the class which was to identify students that were interested in being a small ensemble and then choosing the repertoire and then what they instituted which was so valuable was the idea that the groups would start out by working with the same coach and then as you get later in the semester you start getting feedback from other people – could be the other coaches, it could be a guest artist, so that with music ensemble, you learn about flexibility of approach, that there’s no one way to do things, as you have found, umm, and that’s part of developing your skills as a musician, it’s really problem solving, but with students in a chamber group your doing it in a teamwork kind of setting so you’re learning how to work collaboratively, how to think critically about how all the different musical players contribute to what’s going to happen, and there’s never one right way to do anything, but it’s kind of, you know, you gain so much musical skill from working in that sort of context, as opposed to, just working on your solo piece for instance, so it really enhances your listening skills and, you know, looking a whole texture of music to figure out what’s going on. It’s really interesting, you know, our president here at UR is Ron Crutcher, and he’s an active chamber musician, he has his own trio, and he talks about how chamber music and being a musician taught him how to listen polyphonically. And if you’re in another field, whether your in politics or government or health policy, running a university, working on a sports team, you could be any number of endeavors, part of your success is based on your ability to hear other points of view, and then to work productively with other people to come up with a product. So a lot of people who go to music concerts they don’t realize that, they see an ensemble up there playing and they think, “oh those are musicians they’re just getting together to have some fun!” they don’t realize the hard work and detail work that goes into it, and that’s why I love chamber music. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Kong discusses the foundations of the Chamber Ensemble course, and begins to discuss the musical and transferable skills gained through the study of chamber music.

Keywords: Chamber Ensemble; Flexibility; Listening; Musician; Ronald Crutcher; Shanghai String Quartet; Skills; Teamwork

00:03:47 - Further Discussion of the Goals and Benefits of the Chamber Program

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Partial Transcript: R: So I know that you touched on this a little bit in your last response, but, umm, what are the goals of the chamber ensemble class – Right - what things does it try to achieve in the music program?

K: Right, so it gives musicians, as I mentioned, a chance to develop their skills in another way as opposed to just doing solo performance, a key benefit of our program is that we not only include music majors but minors and students who are not even pursuing music as a career because just think of all the fantastic students here who come with a lot of musical background and by being involved in an ensemble they’re developing that creative aspect of themselves, something that they might not do very much in their other classes, right? and I see you shaking your head, umm, because it’s oftentimes and underestimated part of what music does is it really, uh brings out your individuality, how to express yourself, developing poise, the ensembles of course have a public concert at the end of the semester, so for a lot of these students who aren’t gonna go into music, this gives them a chance to perform in public which is a great asset because it, I mean it just helps you as a person. I’ve had students, umm, come back to me who, who I haven’t seen for years, and say they’re in medical school or something, and they’ll say, “you know, being in chamber ensembles and studying music, now I look back on it, and realize that the discipline and the creativity and all the skills that I had to develop came in handy with my current field,” and it may, not, you know, whether it’s music or not. So it really does develop the whole person, so that’s why music study is so important.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Kong provides further clarification on the benefits of the chamber ensemble course for students, and how these skills are useful outside of the music field.

Keywords: Asset; Chamber Music; Creative; Development; Discipline; Music Majors; Music Minors; Music Study; Non-Majors; Skills

00:05:48 - Formation of Chamber Ensembles

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Partial Transcript: R: Can you speak to the process of forming an throughout the course of the semester, so, just throwing people together who haven’t played together before.

K: Yah. Yah that’s a really good question. So, what I do is, at the end of the previous semester I find out all the students and community players or or other, you know, like Ellen Sayles, who’s a staff member here at U of R, umm, I find out what level they’re at and I put people in a group based on their general musicianship level. It would be awkward to try to put in a group someone who’s really advanced and someone who’s a beginner, I try to get like abilities in each ensemble and in consultation with other faculty members, like in your case with Dr. Cable, we choose the music, everyone has to learn their parts in advance so they have at least, you know, over a month or during the summer you get like, even more time, because each person has to have their parts securely memorized otherwise you can’t put a group together and that’s something that I stress that’s so critical to realize that you can’t work productively in a group if you can’t carry your own weight, if you don’t have your part of the team put together. And then throughout the semester, it’s a matter of working out all the aspects of the ensemble, just coordinating rhythm and tempo, breathing, later parts of, of the process include dynamics, style, balance, you know, more refinements umm, and by the time you get to the end of the semester, the group having rehearsed once a week and have gotten one coaching a week, umm, each group has really honed their interpretation – that’s not to say there’s no room for improvement but, you know, it - it shows the importance of how long it can take to really, you know, to really come up with a satisfactory product and… I’ve spoken to members of the Shanghai Quartet and one time I asked them, I asked them, “how many performances does it take of, you know, a new piece that you put together, before you feel totally comfortable with it?” and they said, “it takes at least ten public performances.” and they’re one of the world’s greatest string quartets, so that really shows the amount of dedication that it takes – These guys, they rehearse almost every day of the week, and they rehearse together, each day, about five hours, it’s huge. I mean, you know, you have four players, just think of all the complexity of interaction that’s happening between those four players and it’s even harder with strings, you know, you have to be in tune, you have to match vibrato, phrasing, articulation, and it’s one of the most challenging activities. So that’s basically how we plan the ensembles throughout the semester.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Kong discusses her process in constructing ensembles before each semester begins, as well as beginning to touch on the amount of work ensembles must do once they begin to rehearse together, using the example of the Shanghai Quartet for context.

Keywords: Abilities; Chamber Ensemble; Coaching; Community Members; Formation; Process; Rehearsal; Shanghai Quartet; Students; Team

00:08:59 - Discussion of the Debussy Trio Chamber Ensemble

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Partial Transcript: R: Umm, so now I have just a – a couple of questions about, umm, the ensemble I’ve been studying in particular, the – the Debussy trio. Umm, so first, if you could just talk a little bit about the first couple of coachings that we had with them.

K: Right. Yah, so one thing that we talked about that was really important was in the initial phases of a piece to pick a tempo that’s under tempo just to see how things fit together because it’s one thing to just do your part, as you know, then all of a sudden when you hear for real, not just a recording, you’re playing with the, or singing with the, other musicians, it actually can be pretty distracting, because all of a sudden you’re experiencing what you do in a different context, so starting under tempo is what we did to just kind of see how things fit together, it’s kind of like, setting the foundation, the nuts and bolts, umm, identifying especially certain rhythms that are complicated and figuring out where someone has to listen to come in based on what another person has, umm, just being aware of – of how the different layers fit together. Umm, once that’s established it’s a matter of slowly getting the piece up to tempo, now if it’s a more advanced level, like you remember last year, with Solomon Quinn’s trio, Micah played in it, and Catherine Edwards, you know, they could pretty much come at it full tempo right away because they’re really, really advanced players. Umm, but with less advanced players, it’s a matter of just getting things to fit together first, then the next phase is working out things like breathing, bowings with string players, and then working out dynamics, and balance and then you get more and more refined. So the Debussy is a good example, of – of how you kinda start from the ground up and address the basics first.

R: Umm, so specifically, umm, I know you’re talking about things that we’re working towards, umm, can you give me some indication of the direction in which you think this ensemble should move over the course of the next couple months before the performance?

K: Yah. Umm, actually they’ve done a really good job, I wanna say first, of each one of them preparing their parts, which is really, really good. Umm, there’s going to be more details worked out in this particular piece with the Debussy in terms of shaping and dynamics that’s going to be a big thing, cuz Debussy indicates quite a lot in his score what’s going on, and when you’re looking at any piece of music – well, your Bach is a good example there’s, there’s you know, in the Bach, there’s like, no dynamic markings, so it comes down to some decision making, it’s like, first of all what is the character of the text that you’re saying, what is the character of the Debussy, umm, what kinds of dynamics shaping do you want to do, even if you have a passage in any chamber piece, say it’s forte, you don’t just flat out play everything forte, there’s always musical expression and shaping happening even within your broad dynamic level, so that’s when you start working at a more detailed level and we’ll be doing that with the Debussy. Otherwise you get kind of a random performance and you don’t want that, you want to really figure out what’s going on. And that’s where the really fun part of chamber ensembles comes into play especially with working out dynamics and shaping because – it is a part of problem solving, you come up – I always ask groups with a particular phrase for example to come up with three different ways of doing this passage and encouraging them, don’t feel that anything you say is not gonna work because sometimes you don’t know, sometimes the most far out thing sounds actually really good and the thing you thought was gonna sound good doesn’t so that’s where the group puts a lot of individual input into saying “Hey, let’s try this way,” you know. And that’s a really good way to get communication skills going between people. You don’t wanna have a rehearsal where you just run through it, and you don’t work on anything, you have to start asking questions. And the more experienced you are as a player you know what kinds of questions to ask, so, dynamics will be worked on, articulation, because you noticed a lot of detached textures in the piece, and releases that you saw us working on a little bit on, on Monday’s rehearsal, we’ll be doing a lot of that as well, also between the strings there’ll be a lot of coordination with matching vibrato, bowings, that kind of thing. Are you gonna be able to observe them when Eighth Blackbird is here, or is that the end of the assignment? –

R: I think it’ll be past the end of the assignment –

K: it will be past – that’s too bad, cuz you would see them coached by, yah, oh well, (Laughs), yah.

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Kong discusses the progress of and her goals for the Debussy Trio Ensemble, also providing generalizable information about the process of preparing a chamber ensemble piece.

Keywords: Basics; Beginning; Coaching; Debussy; Fit together; Goals; Problem Solving; Shaping; Slowly; Trio

00:14:16 - Interpersonal Relationships and Chamber Ensembles

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Partial Transcript: R: Umm, so now just in general, within the chamber ensemble class, as you’ve seen over the past many years, umm, can you talk about the typical interpersonal dynamic between members of an ensemble, maybe who haven’t played together before, or who have, just in general?

K: Yah, it really varies, a lot. Umm, there’s a student, uh string quartet which is Micah, Lillian, uh, John Cavaliere, and – and Hannah Sullivan, who graduated last year, and they had been together two years and they have told me that because they are friends outside of the class that that really helped them to work together. Umm, and that’s not a requirement, that you have to, you know, be best friends in order to be in a quartet, but they’ve pointed out how that has helped, and because Hannah’s not here they have a new string player, Matthew Robinson, and I was just talking to one of the players who said, not so much that it was starting over, it’s kind of like, now re-examining the dynamics, so that’s a really good point. It’s sort of like when a new family member comes, or a relative comes who’s gonna visit for a few months and all of a sudden the relationships kind of shift, but umm, one thing that’s so critical that I try to instill in everybody is, you know, offer suggestions, and do it in as positive a way as possible, like if there’s – I don’t know if I mentioned this when you, when I was coaching the Debussy last week or something, but, say you’re the pianist, and you hear that the cellist is out of tune, you don’t say “Hey! You’re out of tune!” you say, “Can we work on this spot here? I’m not sure about the intonation,” or “I’m not sure how we line up here, can we work on this?” Now, that’s a good way to start out with people you don’t know, until you become more comfortable. Now, people like the Shanghai Quartet, they will tell it like it is, they will, you know, they can get pretty vocal, they’re – they’re not gonna hold back and be polite with one another, they’re just gonna tell it like it is, and they’re have even been some string quartets – there was a quartet called the Budapest Quartet, and the members hated each other so much, they actually – this is crazy, instead of facing each other, they turn their chairs around (laughs) and they were facing outward because – I don’t know what the issue was, but umm, they just could not personally get along. So, so it’s all about keeping it positive, being open to other people’s opinions, you know, it’s like any other teamwork sort of situation.

R: Umm, and then, just my last question here, umm, since this particular ensemble, umm, is not just students, there are community members, and there’s a recently graduated alum, do you think that this effects the dynamics of the ensemble, what do you think that this means for them as a group?

K: I don’t know, I mean, you’ve probably asked them the same question (laughs), umm, it’s kinda hard for me to say since I’m not observing them when they rehearse on their own, so…you know, but knowing all the members of the ensemble I, you know, I expect they’re going to get together and work together well, umm, but yah, sometimes you know, it could be an age difference thing too, but, you know like Davis who’s you know, umm in the medical field, he’s, he’s been in almost two dozen ensembles here, just because we’re short on cellists, but he is so gracious and umm, his wife, Gita, she’s a pianist, and sometimes she helps the ensembles too, and she says she just loves participating as a community person, umm, and she is, umm, a medical doctor, and she said, “you know what I like the most being in these chamber ensembles is I see healthy young people,” as opposed to her profession where she sees a lot of people who are you know, seriously ill, so, for her it’s very energizing to be with young people. Umm, and I think the students look up to the older community people too and it kinda shows how it doesn’t really matter what your profession is or your age, you can still communicate and have a – a worthwhile experience.

R: Great! Thanks so much!

K: Yah! Good! So did I talk long enough?

R: Yes!

Segment Synopsis: Dr. Kong discuss the effects of interpersonal relationships and communication between members of an ensemble, using examples such as the Debussy Trio, other student groups, the Shanghai Quartet, and the Budapest Quartet.

Keywords: Age Difference; Budapest Quartet; Chamber Ensemble; Communication; Community Members; Friends; Interpersonal; Positive; Shanghai Quartet; Students; Teamwork