MusicaNova President Bob Altizer talked with Colors of Music soloist Bobae Johnson to go behind the résumé and find out more about her artistic influences, experiences, and goals.
What inspired you to take up the violin at age 10? Are there other musicians in your family? Who was your first teacher and what was the first ensemble you played in? Have you been in school orchestras since you started playing?
My older sister played piano when we were young and I took after her, starting piano in kindergarten. Then she took up a second instrument (flute) and of course I needed to keep up so I did too. We had a book of orchestra instruments I looked through to find one I liked best and picked the viola because it looked very unusual. I played it for about a year and a half, and then switched to violin after a local quartet camp I went to after second or third grade – it was the first ensemble I played in. My elementary school didn’t have an orchestra so I played in the Metropolitan Youth Symphony until I started the middle school orchestra in sixth grade, and I’ve been in a school orchestra ever since.
Tell us about your private study and rehearsal process. How frequently do you meet Dr. Swartz at ASU? How do you handle rehearsing both school orchestra and solo pieces?
I usually have weekly lessons with him, which is pretty standard, and recently started slightly longer lessons for working on technical aspects and a good chunk on repertoire. I’m also in the Phoenix Youth Symphony (PYS), which rehearses 3 hours per week. During the week I get up early on school days for 30 minutes of technique practice before school, which starts with “orchestra zero hour,” an hour before regular classes start. Then when I get home I have another session on technique and repertoire, then homework and stuff, and maybe a little more practice before bed. For me it works the best to spread it out because I’m focusing a lot on technique these days so I try to do exercises here and there, because you can’t spend an hour just on that. So I try to do it several times a day really focused. Then when I do my solos and repertoire, that’s when I spend more time at it because those you can without it being debilitating. I wouldn’t be able to keep focus at that level if I practiced for hours at a time. I try to get enough sleep but I’m not always successful.
Do you have a particular style or approach to violin performance, either technical or artistic?
I’ve performed many times and when I was younger I would really beat myself up about mistakes while I was playing. Later when I listened to the recording I personally barely noticed it, and that’s only because I’d been working on it for months and months. So I realized that things I thought were mistakes didn’t affect the performance at all. So I’ve been working on – focusing on – performing the music and presenting the music rather than showing off my technique and trying to make as few mistakes as possible. I personally think the audience is there for the music not just my technical prowess. I try to play the music for them, not just the notes and not worry about any little technical errors I might make.
What’s your favorite subject or subjects at Desert Vista? How does your schoolwork relate to your music? And what do you like to do when you’re not working on schoolwork or the violin?
I really like math and physics – they definitely make your brain think in ways it’s not used to. They’re definitely connected to my music I’ve learned in school in general that the way I practice, efficiently in little chunks rather like four hours of work, I started applying that to school and I get so much more done, and I’m always getting my work done much earlier. So the work ethic is directly transferrable between the two. In terms of content, a lot of times I try to envisage what’s in someone’s head – you can’t call up the composer and ask what they meant, so you have to get it from reading the score and deduce how it should be done, like how they want you to phrase things or play this or that section. It’s something you’re not used to doing, so it’s a great mental exercise that ends up helping with school.
I don’t know what I’d do if I got some unexpected time off. Time off is rare, but when I get some I like spending it with friends, watching SciFi TV shows, and going to musicals at Gammage. I really want to see a Broadway musical someday on Broadway in New York.
You’ve been quite community oriented, first with the Melodic Minors and now with Harmony Project. What draws you to that sort of work? What do you get out of it?
I joined Melodic Minors in 7th grade, through my friend Peter Eom [a cellist and MusicaNova young artist and orchestra soloist] who’s been a great role model for me and taught me about giving back to the community. I met Diogo Pereira of Harmony Project-Phoenix when he brought some of his students to a MusicaNova Young Artists Concert I played in. I’d never heard of the project before but it seemed like such a great thing to do that I of course jumped on the opportunity to get to work with these kids. It’s been a really eye-opening experience to work with these kids who don’t really have much but they still show up with such huge smiles and are so grateful for everything. Music has become such as special part of their lives and it’s amazing to see all the kids involved. The parents are so supportive and grateful, always coming and sitting in. It just makes you > for everything you have.
Who are the composers whose work you like the best? Which do you like the least? Is there any style or particular composer that you might specialize in?
(Laughs) It changes every few weeks or so! Now I’m into Schubert, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Bartok. There are some pieces I don’t like, but I wouldn’t discredit any composers. I really like all styles, but I really like Baroque music because it’s so pure in a sense but at the same time it’s so complex, and you feel like you’re inside the composer’s head which is always super interesting. I also like Romantic music and contemporary music because it’s just so awesome! I don’t play a lot of Bach at the moment, but I think it’s always good to be working on stuff like that. As a violinist we don’t usually play multiple voices like a piano does, but with a lot of his solos and sonatas and partitas you’re playing like three or four different voices at once. It’s really kind of like detective work figuring out what he wanted, like how he wanted the phrasing to be and how the different voices are interconnecting. It’s a really good mental exercise.
How about violinist role models: Who do you emulate?
I look up to my teacher a lot. In terms of famous players I like Christian Tetzlaff [b. Hamburg, 1966] and some of the summer professors who played at Domaine who I really loved watching. Tetzlaff played Beethoven concertos at Domaine last year – it’s some of the greatest playing I’ve ever seen.
Your resume says you’ve worked with several world-famous artists and quartets. What are the most important things you learned or took away from those opportunities?
I like them all across the board. They have been very helpful and they inspire you. Master classes aren’t just applicable to your piece, like “change your fingering here” or “play louder there,” they give you overall comments help everyone, both player and audience. Other artists you might get to work with are more concerned with helping you on your particular piece. Anyone who can inspire you to practice technique is a really good master class clinician.
Which performance types do you like best, solo, small ensembles like trios and quartets, or orchestra member? Do you have an ensemble you play with on a regular basis? A preferred collaborative pianist?
I love chamber music! Definitely chamber music. We have school quartets, but I’m really not in anything serious during the year. I had a regular quartet, the Amazon Quartet, myself and three friends from the Phoenix Youth Symphony, but the other members moved so now I’m the only one left so I play in school quartets. The Amazons got great coaching from [Phoenix Symphony Orchestra concertmaster] Stephen Moeckel. I’ve worked with several collaborative pianists but I always try out new ones; I have a new one tomorrow. The close collaboration makes it seem like playing chamber music. It’s not just “accompaniment,” you’re working together with another musician that makes it seem that way.
When you play, what are you expressing artistically? Have you formed any artistic goals of the kind of performer you want to be, or what you want to say?
It’s more than just the notes. As a performer I’ve learned that the audience is there to hear your music, and generally they’re very supportive, not “Oh my god I hope she messes up” or anything. They’re there to hear you, and you should play for them the music, not just the notes. And you have to perform what the composer intended, which is something I learned a lot about this summer. You can’t just go off and play what you want, you have to stick to what the composer writes, at least the phrasing, and you base your fingering on what is written [“come scrite” in Italian].
You’ve mentioned the importance of performing the music as a whole, but you’ve also said a lot about how you work on technique. On one side it’s not the technique, but you work a lot on it. Do you make the technique the means to the music?
A lot of what my teacher has taught me about technique and worked with me on is that good technique is making what you play accurate, but at the same time very easy. Once you have the technique for a piece to the point you don’t have to think about it, that’s when you can really delve into the music of it. So by working on my technique – I don’t want to say I don’t focus on it, because I definitely do – I’m able to focus more on the actual music part when I’m playing and I’m not afraid of making mistakes.
There are lots of free-lance violinists in the Valley. Do you ever get paid gigs, either as a soloist or part of an ensemble or band?
Sometimes. I’ve played some weddings, but I don’t have a set ensemble so that makes getting gigs a little more difficult. For now I’m focusing on improving personally rather than performing all the time. Maybe next year.
How physically demanding is your playing? Does it take a toll on your body, your arms, shoulders, and wrists? If so, how do you deal with it?
Yes it does! Last year I got carpal tunnel – not just from violin, it was from all the typing I was doing on schoolwork! Now I make sure to play healthily, which is where good technique comes in. I’m always trying to use good technique to reduce tension and prevent bodily harm. That’s another reason why I spread my out practice sessions, so I’m not stuck in one position too long.
How do you approach a new solo work, including preparation, rehearsal, and performance? Do you analyze the score deeply or just jump in and start playing?
I usually know the piece before I start playing it or listen to it a lot. At first I look at it as a technical exercise, not as music at all, like I was talking about earlier. I play it as though it was an étude and really get all the technique in my hands; that’s when I can start working on the musical aspects once I don’t need to worry about the technical ones any more.
I had an amazing lesson this summer with a professor in one of the camps I was at. I was working on the Mendelssohn concerto and for the lesson he pulled out the piano score that had orchestra instruments marked on it, which instrument was playing what, and we just worked through playing my part with the score and treating it like a piece of chamber music, basing my phrasing around the harmonies. I had never done this before, and I didn’t realize that sometimes I didn’t have the melody, I had a counter-melody. That was something new for me, I had no idea! So that’s what I’ve been trying to do lately – it’s like the collaborative pianist, treating it less like an accompaniment and more like a collaboration.
Have you ever performed something for the first time in public at an audition or competition?
I have performed a piece for the first time in competitions; sometimes it’s turned out well, other times not. But something I’ve learned over the last couple of years is that music is more about sharing it with other people than competing. People would congratulate me after competitions, but now I want to share the music. In the past I was into competitions but now not so much – it’s more about sharing than competing.
The Conus Violin Concerto in E Minor that you’ll be playing with the orchestra is one of the only pieces that Russian virtuoso ever wrote, at least that’s played these days. How did you come to select it for the concert? In what way does it appeal to you?
At the time was I working on the Mendelssohn concerto, one of the most widely played concertos of all time for violin, but [MusicaNova Music Director] Warren Cohen asked for a “very obscure piece.” I had no idea what it was before my teacher told me about it. Warren sent me a list of a couple of pieces and I looked into them but I just fell in love with the Conus instantly because it’s such an awesome piece.
I think it’s just very, very awesome; I just don’t have a word to describe it. It’s so energetic and crazy but at the same time these moments of absolute beauty, especially in the second movement. It’s just all over the board with these extremes. It’s impossible not to like it! I love the Heifetz recording – it’s a super-awesome recording; he takes it really fast. I know a lot of violinists write show-off pieces like this, like Sarasate and Wieniawsky, I’ve worked on several pieces by them. They mostly wrote their stuff to show off their technique, to show off how good they were, so I’m not surprised that Conus would do the same thing
What are your favorite parts of the Conus Concerto?
Definitely the beginning of the second movement [is one of my favorite parts] and some of the really crazy passages I enjoy playing too, even though they were kind of a beast to work on. Some of the parts are so hard that if you can’t play them well you’re not going to enjoy playing it. When I start stuff I usually take it slowly but sometimes play it really fast to see what it sounds like, and I just couldn’t play it and did not enjoy it the first time. So I worked on it slowly at first and now I really like it because I’m able to play it!
What’s your best memory of the summer of 2015? What stands out from the workshops you attended?
It’s not really music related, but definitely the people, both students and faculty. Everyone is very welcoming, there are no gaps between ages or anything, it’s like we’re all just one big family and everyone wants to be your friend. And it’s very non-competitive, which is always a great environment to be in. And then all of the faculty are very warm. They’re all so knowledgeable and such amazing teachers, you learn a lot just watching them or having your own lessons.
In 2015 I went to two summer music camps. At the first one, Madeline Island, it was mostly quartets, so there were hours of quartet rehearsal every day plus coaching every day where someone would come in and work with us for an hour. And there were private lessons every week, you also get to attend classes after dinner, and of course obviously your own practice.
The second one was Domaine, where I went last year; I was in a quintet and we had coachings and rehearsals, and you’d have a couple of lessons per week, and you had a masterclass every single day. I played in two of them where you get to see the faculty work with these people, and you get to work with them yourself. Rachel Barton Pine gave like seven masterclasses this year; it was ridiculous because she was not there for long!
We also had technique class every morning which is a lot of the inspiration I have for working on basic technique all the time. There were about 40 violinists in the camp and four violin teachers every week, and we would go to this big room and sit in a circle and the professor would lecture in the middle for like 45 minutes first thing in the morning, every morning and they’d work with stuff that’s applicable to all levels from beginners to advanced. They work on super-basic techniques focused on relieving as much tension as possible and from that I learned that’s probably the most beneficial thing you can learn as an instrumentalist because your technique just skyrocketed when you work on that kind of stuff; it was always a big inspiration to me.
You’ve played twice in the MusicaNova Young Artists Series concerts. Was that a good experience for you?
Oh yes, sure. Usually I don’t perform that much music in one session, so just getting to work on that much music and perform it all at once was a trial on my endurance but I learned a lot from it both times. And getting to perform with a lot of other young artists, it’s great to see all of them around the Valley. And also it’s how I got involved with Harmony Project, which is a plus.
You’ll graduate from Desert Vista in 2017, right? What are your plans after that: university, or conservatory study, or something else? Do you intend to make a career of the violin?
That’s right. Music and school are both such a big part of my life that I couldn’t give up either one of them, so that influenced my decision that I really want to do a double major. There are some good programs where you can attend a university and a conservatory at the same time, so I’m looking into those options. There aren’t that many so I’m looking at like Case Western and the Cleveland Institute of Music, Harvard and the New England Conservatory, Columbia and Juilliard, and Rice has an amazing music program as well as an academic program. My double major would be math or physics and then violin performance.
I don’t know if I’ll make a career of the violin, which is why I’m doing a double major. I’ve been doing school and violin for so long I’m not sure what I’d do without one or the other, so I don’t know, we’ll have to see. I kind of aspire to be like Octavio Pajaro [MD, father of Milena and Flavia Pajaro-van de Stadt, both MusicaNova soloists] – he’s so academically smart, plus so amazing as a classical musician as well.
Finally, what’s an interesting fact about you that’s not in your bio that MusicaNova audiences might like to know?
(Laughs) I’m a really big nerd – I go to Comicon and watch Doctor Who and Sherlock and Star Trek and stuff, is that interesting enough? And I love Lord of the Rings. A friend and I went to Comicon in costume as Frodo and Galadriel, and my dog is named Pippin. I like to watch Sci-Fi TV like Doctor Who, Sherlock [the new one with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman], and Star Trek. My favorite is Next Generation but I also like Voyager and the original series.
Thanks, Bobae. It’s been great talking with you.