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Campus Musician

Meghan Thomassen | Friday, November 16, 2012

If you attend Mass in Knott Hall on Sunday nights, you might be able to catch junior music major Michael Thompson playing bass for the dorm’s choir. He’s a tenor in the Glee Club, bassist for the Pasquerilla Music Company and Notre Dame’s Symphony Orchestra and plans to attend graduate school for music theory. He said it all started with a song he heard by Led Zeppelin in high school.
“I heard ‘Black Dog’ by Led Zeppelin,” he said. “And after hearing that, I thought, ‘I want to do that.'”
Thompson has played ever since.
“I practiced a lot,” he said. “When I came to Notre Dame, I was originally planning on doing economics, but I was also planning on the music track as well. But by the end of that year, I just liked my music homework so much more than my economics work so I just stuck with that instead. I don’t regret it at all. I enjoy being a music major.”
He studies with Prof. Darrel Tidaback, Notre Dame’s bass professor.
“Darrel Tidaback is a jazz guy. He is probably one of the only solidly jazz guys here,” he said. “I worked with him last summer doing some research with him at the University of Chicago on altered dominant chords.”
Dominant chords are built on the fifth scale degree of the diatonic scale.
“A dominant chord is the chord that pulls back to the tonic chord. To alter a dominant chord, you take the fifth and raise it slightly by a half-step,” he said. “It makes it a bit more tense.”
Thompson said he wanted to know more about the altered dominant chords he heard in jazz and earlier variations found in composers like Chopin.
“I was looking at Chopin’s use of [altered dominant chords], and I got the idea from looking at some jazz stuff with Darrel,” he said.
“It’s a longer process than I was able to cover. I’m planning on building a timeline of the fully altered dominant chord. The fully altered dominant chord has four alterations to it. Hopefully next summer I can look at some later music to see how the other alterations piled in.”
Between Glee Club and the orchestra, Thompson studies Schenkerian analysis.
“It’s is a way to analyze different tonal compositions. It’s kind of necessary to know if you want to go to grad school for music,” he said.
Thompson said he is considering the University of Chicago for music theory.
“I’d like to continue my quest to find the origins of the altered dominant chord,” he said. “But I’m going to try looking into schools who have Glee Clubs. I get a joy from playing [and] listening that I just can’t get from really any other study or thing to do. I just really enjoy music. I can’t really give a better answer than that,” he said. “It puts a smile on my face.”
Contact Meghan Thomassen at
mthomass@nd.edu 

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The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.

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Campus Musician

Meghan Thomassen | Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tucked into the leftmost practice room on the second floor of Crowley Hall on Wednesday, pianist Will Sievern, a junior music and pre-med double major, practiced his piece for the upcoming Concerto Competition. Two music books, both Chopin, lay on top of the small Steinway & Sons piano.
“He’s the best,” Sievern said. “I go on binges for composers and for the past year I’ve been reading books and playing a lot of music, just trying to soak in Chopin’s life, because he’s really interesting to me. He only wrote for piano, so a lot of pianists feel a connection with Chopin.”
Chopin wrote his first concerto to establish himself as a pianist in Europe. Sievern will play the same piece for his first competition since high school this Friday at the Notre Dame Symphony Orchestra’s Concerto Competition. Every November, student musicians compete to play with the orchestra the following spring. Sievern will play against violinists, vocal performers and other pianists for the same prize.
“A concerto is written to be played with an orchestra, but most people don’t get to play a concerto with an orchestra in their whole life,” Sievern said.
Sievern gave a sneak preview of the concerto he will perform in Friday’s competition. He played the first resounding lines triumphantly and then eased into a lovely, complex melody. His hands were nimble and strong on the keys and his expression was firmly concentrated, even though he played the entire piece from memory.
Sievern’s love affair with Chopin began when he picked up Chopin’s first piano concerto, which he started practicing the piece last January.
“It’s really emotional,” he said. “It really tells a story to me.”
Extending his long fingers, he played a bittersweet piece that rose gracefully to passionate heights and fell slowly to melancholic lows.
“It feels so real to me, what Chopin was writing,” he said as he played. “What’s awesome about it too, it changes character again at the very end. It goes up to some kind of a happy ending. Maybe this is the grieving process for someone.”
Sievern began his career when he was 6 years old. His father, who gave up his career as a trumpeter early on in life, encouraged him to play the piano.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” Sievern said.
With natural talent talented, Sievern practiced and competed, but his plans for college track crowded out any time for piano.
“I threw [piano] aside, and then injuries and other things kept me from fulfilling my potential in track, so I quit and I wanted to play the piano,” he said. “I had been taking lessons, and I was already a music theory and history major along with Arts and Letters Pre-Professional.”
Sievern said he started preparations for the Concerto Competition with the help of associate professor John Blacklow in the Department of Music.
“I put a lot of time into it, more than I usually do for a piece,” he said. “There’s different kinds of practicing. You can practice and not really concentrate and just play the notes and get along with it. Or you can practice and take every ounce of concentration that you have and pour into it, and it’s exhausting. But once I wanted to do it, it became a lot easier to do it. I’m really happy with how I’m playing now.”
When it comes to performances, the pressure can be overwhelming for competitors. To cope, Sievern said he practiced two hours a day for the past nine months.
“And it all comes down to a 15-minute time window in a competition,” he said. “If I screw up massively, it seems like all the work has gone completely to waste. There’s always the chance that you’ll mess up. There’s always a margin of error. You’re going to play a little bit differently every time, and some of those difference manifest in mistakes.”
“Once you have a large sample size of performing and competing you always know there’s going to be another time if you screw up. But it’s a huge monster to tackle.”
Contact Meghan Thomassen at
mthomass@nd.edu