Would you look at that, it's after midnight. The practice room has once again become a time portal, and I've arrived at the end of the day just as soon as it began. Sleep needs some attention, but I'd rather stay up, just in case I might miss out on something. The new day will be over before it begins, it seems, and then suddenly, strange things happen, like school starts, and puppies grow up, and another year slips by.
I've been doing some thinking lately about the road I've traveled since 2004 when I first returned to my pursuit of the violin--can't believe it's been nine years already. In a lot of ways, I'd been in denial that anything has changed at all; after all, the moon is still just as far away as it was the day I was born. But in chasing it, I somehow managed to cover a lot of ground.
There came a point this summer, about six weeks into a serious practice binge consisting of six hours each day of scales, etudes, and other remedial technical drills, that a wise friend here at violinist.com, Stephen Brivati, told me I was being too diffident, that I should be playing much more difficult repertoire, and that I was more than capable. My technical purgatory had served its purpose, but I was holding myself back with it. Who is this man, who lives in Japan, who's never met me and yet assumes so much? Normally, such advice should be viewed with skepticism, especially given the context. Yet, of all the people in my life, he is probably the only person who I'd have taken seriously. Why? Because he's been my mentor from the first day I picked up my violin and stumbled across this website, and he's as close as I'll ever get to having a real teacher.
So, on a non-particular day in July, I took the advice of a wise man in Japan, and I dug out the Paganini, which had been stored in a file cabinet since I bought the dog-eared old copy at a used bookstore back in '04. Such a work seemed too sacred to even touch, but I was simply following orders, right? #16 was barely recognizable at the speed I took it, but after looking at #20 and #9, I realised that all three were completely manageable. These were what I should be practicing! I was in complete disbelief.
Then, a couple of days later, I went ahead and printed out the first movement of the Tchaikovsky concerto and, as one might indulge in a guilty pleasure when no one is looking, gave it a spin. When I heard my own fingers creating those beloved familiar phrases, I couldn't believe it. All the technique I needed to play this dream concerto was already in my possession, as though it had just been waiting to be let out. When I finished, I broke into tears: I never knew that this would be the day I would wake up and find out I was a real violinist like I'd always wanted to be. The hardest part now is accepting this fact and owning it; my unbelief is the only thing that holds me back.
So, this is my acceptance speech. Ever since that day, I've felt like giving credit to all the people who have transformed me over the years, most of whose faces I will never see, given the span of the earth and the logistics of travel. But thanks to the internet, I've established and maintained some of the best relationships in spite of the distance.
Buri, thanks for shoving me out of the nest to show me I knew how to fly. Thank you, all you who have hung around this website over the years, chatting on the discussion threads and keeping me entertained and informed. Although I may never meet you, you've been every bit as real to me as my friends who sit across from me at the coffee shop (making fun of me: are you still on that computer, Emily?). Thanks, Laurie, for keeping the website up and running, and for creating a safe and fertile environment for cultivating civil (minus shoulder rest debates!) discussion.
Thank you, Itzhak and Pinky, for letting me borrow your bowings from time to time--genius! Thank you, Lisa Marsnik and Dylana Jenson, for overhauling my setup and giving me a solid base understanding. Thank you Todd Ehle, for your thorough instructional videos, for sparking such creative teaching ideas. Thank you, Zuill Bailey, for being an icon, gracing the small communities of Alaska and stoking my conniving cello-kidnapping ways. Thank you, Arnold Steinhardt, for explaining the birds and bees of quartet playing. Thank you Cup Noodle, for keeping my tummy full while I pay for my Dominant strings. Yes, thank you, Cup Noodle.
Then there's the people physically present in my life: I want to thank my parents for broadening the scope of possibility by supporting me every way they can, morally, spiritually, and financially. Thank you George, for allowing me to practice all hours of the day and night and liking it. (At least you say you never mind!) Thank you, Michael Avagliano, for being the best mentor stand partner ever; violists rock! And my pianist, Maria, for being such an unfailing role model and collaborator. And, of course, Kevin, for being my real-life cellist, for believing in me wholeheartedly, even when I didn't believe it myself, and for teaming up with me in my race to the moon. We haven't gotten there just yet, but the journey's been sweet so far.
Thank you, thank you.
This year, the Kenai Summer Music Festival included a short aria, "E Lucevan Estelle", from Act 3 of Puccini's Tosca. Sung effectively, it is one of the most passionately heart-wrenching pieces of music written in all of opera. However, if you've never heard it and sit down with the viola part for a sight-read, you will see just a bunch of non-melodic, nondescript quarter notes and and eighth rests. My stand partner and I had great fun trying to pronounce the unfamiliar Italian words that were printed over some of the apparently more important notes: sostendo vagamente, stentate un poco, and con slancio, for instance. "What do you think they mean?" she asked me.
"Well, like this," I said, and I clenched my fist and made an anguished face. "And like this," and I dropped my hand open in despair. "And..."
Here, let me tell you a story.
It all began last November while I was in Hawaii, attending my best friend's wedding as the maid of honor. Such a bright and happy occasion warranted much celebration, and celebrate we did... but those stories will stay in Hawaii. This is the story about what happened at home while I was away. Sunday morning after the wedding, my husband called with bad news: Ben, my dog, was not well at all, and needed to get to the vet as soon as possible, only the clinics were all closed for the day. By Monday, he was dying, and no one could see him until later that day. I waited with my cell phone in hand for the news. Finally, the phone call: his spleen had ruptured, probably due to a cancerous tumor. He'd lost a lot of blood and they didn't think that he would survive the surgery.
"You realise that if it's cancer, we have to put him down, right?" Still numb from the shock, my mind functioned with only practical problem-solving skills--not the best comfort to the person on the other end of the line, which had fallen silent. "You okay?" I asked. "NO!" came the sound of my husband's voice through his tears. In all the years I'd been married to him, I'd only witnessed him crying one other time, when a good friend of his died. The sudden comprehension of his grief moved me, and then, I was weeping, too. In a hotel lobby. In downtown Waikiki, as the slack key guitar played over the PA system and the smell of hibiscus and tourism overwhelmed me.
The other people in the wedding party wanted to go to Pearl Harbor and other sight-seeing destinations. We only had one rental car, and since I didn't want to be the emotional sandbag, I opted to stay at the hotel. "How will you get to the airport tonight?" they asked. I told them I'd take a cab, since they weren't coming back my direction.
I needed to grieve unnoticed, so I slapped on some sunscreen and started walking. It's easy to disappear in Honolulu, and no one noticed anything behind my sunglasses. I walked to Chinatown, and when it began to rain torrentially, I used my last bit of cash to buy an umbrella. And since I didn't have enough cash to hail a cab, I kept walking. In the rain. In Chinatown, as the sun began to set, and the skies cleared, and I made my way, mile by mile, in the dusky twilight toward the airport, hoping not to get stuck in Chinatown after dark. After six miles, I had enough change to hail a cab for the last three (where I discovered that most cabs take credit card, of course). Then, as I waited for the plane, and waited for time to tell what would become of my dog, I pulled out my friend's i-pod and browsed his musical selection. In the album "Classical Heartbreakers," I stumbled upon Puccini's tragic aria, and listened to it on a short little loop probably at least thirty times, just so I could feel the grief one more time.
Not that he was singing about a dog with a cancerous spleen, or about crying in the rain in Chinatown. The point of my story is, he was singing about his personal grief in a way that matched my own. Yes, the words were Italian--I believe he'd been betrayed by his lover and was fixing to endure the firing squad--and I don't speak a lick of the Romantic languages, and I'm pretty sure they don't do firing squads in Alaska, but I connected intimately with the lamenting lover, and it was comforting to my sorry soul.
A grammar teacher once told me, "Usage determines meaning." Meaning, the word in question draws its meaning from whatever the context provides for definition. So, it is not the words themselves that carry meaning, so much as how we use the words. Music has this way of being able to convey something ever so much more specific than a word could ever express, yet allows room for both the performer's and the listener's own personal experience to connect with the meaning.
It's true: I admit, I never did look up the definitions for sostendo vagamente, stentate un poco, and con slancio; I already knew exactly how to play those quarter notes and eighth rests--and then some--because I knew what I wanted to communicate with the music. And it's so much more than words.
It's about crying over a dog that's dying from a ruptured cancerous spleen. While walking through Chinatown in downtown Honolulu. In the rain...
(Side note: my dog is alive and well today, and one of two dogs in the vet clinic's history that has survived a ruptured cancerous spleen removal more than three months. Not only that, he fathered nine puppies in May, one of which belongs to me now.)
It began sometime in the spring, after watching the movie A Late Quartet and becoming curious about Beethoven's opus 131. At that time, I didn't even know that Beethoven's quartets were divided into periods (totally didn't get the title of the movie even), and I don't suppose I'd ever listened to a single recording of one before, maybe one or two performances, but that's it. Basically, I was entering completely fresh musical territory. I guessed most people listen through the entire 16-piece cycle, dutifully, like a parent who makes sure not to spend too much time with one child or another. The idea of listening through all of them has never appealed to me at all. Okay, it did, in a wholesome, multivitamin flavored sort of way: good for you, beneficial, but glad more at the thought of having done it already than actually going through with it. The only time I can really sit still long enough to listen through a several-movement work is if I'm at a live performance (knitting project handy, just in case...), or if I can listen while doing something else. It didn't feel quite reverent though, putting Beethoven in the background while paying taxes or cleaning the house, because after all, Beethoven always has something important to say. So, one late evening after midnight, I downloaded the first full recording of opus 131 that I came across, a performance by the Lindsay quartet, and went to bed to listen through my headphones in the dark stillness. In that sweet, open-minded space of time before the conscious is overtaken by the subconscious, the tale began to unfold.
Death's icy cold breath crept up the back of my neck. Someone uttered a eulogy, hushed and devoted, as an unseen audience mourned. Then came the ghosts. First came the Ghost of Christmas Past to pay a visit, and all the happy visions of my life passed before me, meadows of flowers all gauzy and golden-tinged. I don't remember the next part because at that point, I sailed off into a happy slumber. Would've made an excellent night of it, too, except that the seventh movement awoke me with a start, an angry ghost who had some unfinished business to attend to: Christmas Future. Groggily, I shut off the music and waited until the next day, where I entertained my curious puppy with the frightful finale of opus 131. Christmas Present, which I assumed must be lurking in the middle movements, could wait until the next evening. Only, I never could make it to the middle movements. Each night, I fell asleep to the ghost of Christmas Past and woke up to Christmas Future. This must have gone on for three weeks before I finally sat down during the day and finished the middle. Finally fulfilled, I broke away from the dynamic Lindsay quartet and took a peek at 130 with the Alban Berg quartet.
I don't recommend 130 late at night if you want to sleep well. The beginning fools you into relaxing a bit, but constantly tickles you back to alertness with a flurry of glorious runs, the plot line is way too involved, and the fugue at the end argues with you like a sour stomache at two in the morning. I found this composition, however, to be every bit as transcendental to time as 131; I probably listened to it in bits and pieces nonstop over the course of three weeks, settling into the Guarneri quartet's rendition of the cavatina eventually, certain that nothing greater has been written for string quartet.
Finally, I let go of the cavatina and moved on to 132 (with the Borodin quartet), this time already prepared for something absolutely spectacular. Beethoven, master of the universe, you never let me down! This time a dark, romantic stranger lured me to sleep each night with wine and chocolate. However, if you manage to stay awake to the Andante, it is nearly twenty minutes of one big bookend. (Please never try to listen to this movement on your way out the door, because it contains a series of false summits.) I thought for sure, Beethoven was a goner this time, the way he repeatedly knocks at death's door, but he pulls through with a lighthearted skip of relief into the next movement, cheating death one more time. The final waltz leaves just enough room for a sequel: maybe next time, death!
Some say Beethoven heralded the romantic period with these late quartets, but how can you ascribe something so narrow as a musical period to the gateway of the subconscious universe? He became a medium to something infinitely more expressive of the human soul, the magical stuff upon which dreams feed. But then, that's the way I feel about all of his works. They are best enjoyed from the window of the imagination; whatever, exactly, you experience, let your subconscious decide.
The late night sessions continue. At this rate of progression, I should finish the entire cycle in about a year. Opus 18 quartets, here I come. This time, Quartetto Italiano. This early quartet might be better suited for mornings, though: I dream of birds and giggles and pink candies...
Hello, my name is Emily Grossman, and I'm an addict.
As I type, I'm sitting at the local coffee shop in Soldotna, Alaska, with a fresh toasted blueberry bagel and a triple-shot americano, in the tradition of my favorite morning ritual. I am a coffee drinker. I would have moved away from this sleepy little fishing town a long time ago had it not been for this incredible drink that sits on my table, which has yet to be beaten by any other coffee shop in all my travels of the earth. The day they take away my coffee is the day I no longer call myself a Soldotna-ite. Soldotnan? Soldotnatonian? Whatever they call these people here, I am, a local.
The tourist season is finally drawing to a close. During the summer, the population swells disproportionately, like the daylight hours, maddening everyone with nonstop bustle. Most people come to flip their rods at the river in a fiendish frenzy, hoping, like a slot machine junkie in a casino, to hit the jackpot and head home with a cache of bright sockeye salmon. Normally, you would find me right in the thick of the combat, dodging maverick hooks and split shot shrapnel, but not this summer. What happened; why the change? you ask. Did I finally admit I had a problem and start attending the local chapter of AA (Anglers Anonymous)?
Haha, well, not exactly... It's not just the fishing addiction: I'm addicted to checking my email. I'm addicted to facebook. I'm addicted to knitting turtles. An addict is an addict; one habit can only be cured by replacing it with another equally compelling habit. The key is to look for wholesome habits, I think. But now I'm sitting here scratching my head (I'm addicted to scratching my head), thinking about all the habits I thought to be wholesome that somehow overtook my life in a menacing, compulsive fashion.
For instance, I wanted to be healthy, so I took up running once. What began as a walk/jog down the highway a couple of miles and back grew over the years into an extreme love/hate relationship with a sport in which I was never genetically predisposed to excel, yet compelled me to ever greater accomplishments. For years, I lived by the stopwatch and the scale, trying to beat the shadow of a former self to the finish line, worried about the day when that would no longer be possible. My fastest 5K? My best marathon? My longest run? Does it even matter? (Fifty miles, through a mountain pass, one of the craziest things I've ever done...) No one else really cared but me. Gradually, fear overcame my joy, and every race date gave me anxiety attacks in the days that preceded it. Combine that with a bum knee that only grew worse as the years accumulated, and the "rock bottom" of this addiction was inevitable. Last summer, after surviving a sketchy mountain race that left two people critically injured and one missing in action (never to be found again), I finally hung up my running shoes and broke free from the compulsion. Now, I only run when I feel like it. I don't carry a watch. I try not to add up the mileage. Though tempted to count calories and carbs, I try not to look at labels and simply eat when I'm hungry. Stop when I'm full. I keep telling myself that maybe one day I'll go back to training with a healthier attitude and finally achieve this thing they talk about, this thing they call "balance."
But what happens when you don't have a "full" button? Some pursuits have a clear end to them, like the end of fishing season, or a marathon finish line tape. But others are more open-ended, beckoning like a horizon line, ever-receding as we approach. Practicing the violin, for instance, is one of those things. Seriously, can even a simple scale ever be good enough? Let's say someone wants to call themselves a real violinist. How do they know when they've arrived? Do they log their hours and get a sticker when they reach the fabled 10,000-hour mastery level? If not, then is it the day they finally join the Paganini Club? The Tchaikovsky Concerto Club? The Bach Fugue Club? What? How does one get there?
Becoming a practice addict is relatively painless and simple. It begins when a person realizes they can't play unaccompanied Bach the way they imagine it should sound. At this point, two options exist: 1.) Throw up one's hands in despair and shut the case; walk away, covering ears in order to silence the tempting siren-song following one's exit of the room. 2.) Recognize the fact that just a little focused attention to the instrument will grant even just a tiny improvement, and if there's hope in a tiny improvement, then a stack of tiny improvements may add up to a big one, and perhaps just a few big improvements away lies the Bach you've always dreamed of.
Those two options, the second being more prevalent than the first, pretty much sum up the past nine years of my life. The addiction came on so subtly, so naturally, that I almost didn't notice by the time I'd worked up to six hours a day (more hours than I sleep at night), that this isn't really what you call "normal" or "balanced." (Whatever that is...) Other things have fallen by the wayside: my house, unkempt, my cupboards bare, my bills and checks piling up in a cluttered mess on the counter. I don't even fish anymore. I am a practice addict, and I've been completely consumed. Every hour disappears in a soothing, organized fashion. In the practice room, I escape into a special sanctuary: emotional strife no longer exists, people and their contribution or lack thereof in my life become irrelevant. Whining dogs cannot reach me. Sleep? Coffee fixes that.
I practice because I can. I practice because I can't. I practice to prepare for performances, and to nail auditions. I practice because I don't want to let down the others in my ensembles. I practice for the approval of my muse, for the nod of Beethoven, for the accolades of composers and performers that went before me. I practice for spite, when doors have been shut and people abandon me. But when all is said and done, I practice for myself, for Areté, the goddess of virtue, and for the apostle Paul, who once said if anything was excellent or praiseworthy, to think on these things. To make a joyful noise to God, simply put. I hope to take flight and soar in the realm of the eternal, up with the mountain goats and eagles, and all those majestic wild Alaskan animals that grace the peaks of the unobtainable.
I'm better for it, I think. Have I arrived? Hell no. (I smugly bagged mm=138 for the presto in the B minor partita, only to witness my stand partner Michael Avagliano play the Allemande with such grace and melodic fluidity as to put my chords to shame.) It's a beautiful trail, though. I'll try to keep a camera close by and share bits and pieces with you all as it unfolds.
My name is Emily Grossman, and as I reach for another sip of coffee, I give a mental toast, to all addicts: "Hear hear!"
Really, I'm just fine; I can quit any time.
(My dogs, Ben and Chewy, putting their fetching addictions to good use.)
More entries: February 2013
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