Saturday, July 20, 2013

5 Questions with Lauren Bernofsky

Lauren Bernofsky (Bachelor of Music, 1990), studied Violin Performance and Composition at Hartt from 1985 to 1990. She is currently living in Bloomington, IN.

What have you been up to since you graduated from Hartt?

I’ve had the good fortune to be able to do what I love, which is teaching (violin and music theory), playing my violin, and, most importantly to me, composing. After Hartt, I went on to do a master’s in composition at New England Conservatory and then a doctorate in composition at Boston University (thirteen straight years of college – whew!) I’ve taught violin privately and through several school systems in the Boston area, and music theory at The Cambridge School of Weston, Boston University, and the Peabody Institute of Music. But I get the most joy from my life as a composer – I’ve written for ballet, film, chamber groups, chorus, orchestra, you name it….

My most recent larger work is a children’s opera called “Mooch the Magnificent,” on a libretto by Scott Russell Sanders. The opera had an extensive run (34 performances!) with Roundabout Opera for Kids, and it was recently published by Theodore Presser. I’ve had a bunch of pieces published, actually – about thirty now. My publishers, besides Presser, are Alfred, FJH, Balquhidder, Fatrock Ink, Boosey & Hawkes, and Hal Leonard. About half of these publications are pedagogical works (so, works that would be played by, say, a school orchestra), and the other half are professional concert works (brass quintet, string quartet, orchestra, and assorted mixed ensembles.)

I should also mention another big part of my life, which is my family. My husband is Christoph Irmscher, a writer and English professor at Indiana University, and we have two kids, Nicholas (13) and Julia (8). And, yes, my kids DO play stringed instruments!
What are you involved with right now?

I’m currently getting a bunch of pieces ready for Theodore Presser – they recently accepted a string quartet, a piece for trumpet and piano, one for flute and piano, a work for soprano and string orchestra, one for string orchestra alone, and one for full orchestra (which they’d like to have in both full orchestra and chamber orchestra versions.) This is keeping me fairly busy right now! I recently sent off the full orchestra version of my Three Portraits of a Witch, so the biggest one is out of the way (that’s what I’m telling myself, because it’s frankly quite a slog working through all these scores and parts, trying to make them as player- and conductor-friendly as possible.) I’d rather be writing new pieces, but as long as I bothered writing these other ones in the first place, I may as well put in the time for getting them “out there.”

I’m also preparing for a position I’ve been recently appointed to, and that is Music Director of the Musical Arts Youth Organization (MAYO) in Bloomington, IN. I’m looking forward to hearing auditions in early fall and then choosing some exciting repertoire for the young players to perform. (And don’t expect me to stick to what was written before the year 2000!) I am pretty excited about this new prospect, this new opportunity to bring truly engaging and, well, fun music to the orchestra members. As their conductor, I’m the one who has to take the heat for either boring or too-difficult or otherwise annoying repertoire, so I take this challenge VERY seriously!

What is one of your most memorable things about your time at Hartt?

I had a lot of important formative experiences while at Hartt, but what comes to mind right now happens to be the words of a bassoon teacher, Frank Morelli. I heard him perform in Musicianship class one day, and he said that (and I paraphrase here) he listens to good singers as a model for musicality. Simple, but so very important to good music-making. During my years of working with players of all instrument groups (that is, not just the strings I’m so accustomed to), and by “working” I include playing with as well as coaching others playing my music, I have come to focus closely on the real essence of the music, how to best bring out that music, in a way that transcends the technical predispositions of any instrument. Wind players have the limitation of needing to breathe, but we have to find ways of incorporating breaths in a way that doesn’t interfere with the musical line. And strings have the limitation of the bow – I’m closest to understanding (or at least being able to point out) this problem, being a string player myself. It’s very difficult to transcend the bow to play in a way that only supports the music and in fact “overcomes” the difficulties of up-bows and down-bows and the relative lengths of each (which result in the volume of a given note.)

I am going to continue this tangent for a minute longer to describe something I’ve come to call “string player musicality.” (I made that up, by the way.) For me, it’s an acceptance of certain unmusical ways of playing that result from the natural tendencies of the instrument. I am referring especially to when string players play loud up-beats because that’s what the bow does naturally. Ridiculous, you might think – shouldn’t we know better than that? But many string players are used to hearing the music played that way, and it’s within their concept of “musical” string playing. I’ve heard way too many performances, even by professionals, where up-beats (or any off-beats) are in fact louder than the main beats, because that’s what the bow does naturally. It’s not what’s best for the music, and as I imagine Mr. Morelli to have thought, it’s not the way a good singer would sing it.
What did you learn during your time at Hartt that you did not appreciate or recognize until after time passed and you had some time to reflect?

I got a B+ on my senior recital jury. I was perplexed – I’d been considered a hard worker (my friends used to make fun of me, good naturedly, on Friday nights when, after dinner, instead of going to a movie or “hanging out”, I went back to the practice room.) I’d prepared and prepared and prepared for this recital, or so I thought. But then just a B+? I asked David Wells, who was on the jury, why. I remember his words that I had “one of the best hearts and minds at Hartt,” but my performance wasn’t really communicative. I THOUGHT I was communicating, moving with the music, whatever. But obviously it didn’t come across to him that way. As I went on to do a lot more performing in various situations where I could get direct audience feedback, especially in informal settings (for instance, playing on the street at Boston’s Quincy Market and playing at retirement homes), I learned how to really communicate the music I was playing, because when I didn’t, the crowd at Quincy Market would walk away (Pachelbel Canon notwithstanding – you always get a crowd with the Pachelbel Canon.) Or the people at the retirement home would lose interest. But people really do respond, I have found, when you “look like the music” you’re playing, that is, convey the music through your body language. And it certainly translated into money for me, as a graduate student in Boston – more money in the case at Quincy Market, or maybe getting called back for a gig the next year. But, more important than the money, why shouldn’t a musician communicate to the audience how wonderful the music is? In fact, the survival of classical music might just depend on it.
What is next for you?

This fall will mark the first season for me as Music Director at the MAYO program I mentioned earlier, and I’m looking forward to my adventures there! As far as composing goes, I’ve been collaborating with some other artists (writers, graphic artists, poets, etc.) in the creation of an online “novel” about a mysterious (and fictional) island called “Blaitholm.” I have already composed the music to the introductory video, and I look forward to contributing music to other aspects of this project, too. I’ve been asked by the Cardinal Stage Company (Bloomington, IN) to write music for a new play by Scott Russell Sanders (who was the librettist for my children’s opera.) And on my wish list for the future … a commission to write a full-length opera on the novel by Sanders, The Engineer of Beasts.
Do you have any suggestions for current Hartt students?

Absolutely: make use of all the resources at Hartt that you can. Don’t just attend master classes on your instrument, or even your area of music; I call this developing “horizontally.” So, if you are a classical player, try a jazz master class. If you play a brass instrument, go to a strings or voice master class. The more you learn about other areas of music, the stronger a musician you will be in your own area. For instance, while I was at Boston University, I learned that the school had a great resource in the Empire Brass Quintet, which was in residence there. I began attending their brass quintet master classes. And there I learned some great stuff that string players don’t necessarily think about (for example, the exact moment you end a chord), and I was able to apply it to string quartet playing.

And take your history and theory classes VERY seriously – believe me, you WILL use this information when you get out of school. It might well be the reason that you get called again for a gig after something goes awry in the performance but all the people who could hear that the group was on the dominant chord found their way back – it’s these musical skills that will really help you as a professional. This is the point in your life when you’ll have the most time to spend on your music, so take in all that you can! And don’t forget to have fun along the way.
If you want people to get in touch, how can they do so?

Fee free to contact me through my website,, or via email at .

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