September 2013

Idée Fixe

September 25, 2013 12:48

As if by the workings of destiny, the artist finally chanced upon the personified muse, the object of his ideals, his One True Love. What next? She would not belong to him. Ever out of reach, she transfixed his every thought and thus, as a recurrent melodic theme weaves its way through an entire symphony, became his idée fixe, his musical obsession. Around every corner, he imagined her face, heard her voice, felt her presence. The words of a childhood song sang clear in his mind:

"Now I have to leave forever my dear country, my dear friend. Far from them I'll spend my weary life in sorrow and regret."

For a moment, love had been suspended weightlessly by its own untainted virtue, then, with the swing of the pendulum, began the long plummet into hopeless despair, rejection, and self-destruction. She haunted him incessantly; even through slumber, he could not elude her, as she tainted his dreams. His mind thoroughly poisoned by this unstoppable, unrequited passion, he could see no other way to escape this torture but through death...

One evening last week, I arrived home, ready to practice Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique for a couple of hours before bedtime. The house was unsettlingly dark and quiet. Thinking I had the place to myself, I jumped when I heard a voice from the couch break the silence: "Good evening."

"George! What are you doing?"
"Oh, just enjoying a cup of tea in the dark."
"...Okay." I frowned, quizzically.
"Power's out."

Ah. We sat for a few moments in the smooth blackness, unwilling to disturb the peaceful hush for a bit. Still, I needed to practice. Unable to escape the tugging sensation, I grabbed a headlamp and headed back to the studio, ready to tackle movement 4: March to the Scaffold. A program symphony, Berlioz created this masterpiece to echo his own emotional journey after becoming enamored by a famous Shakespearean actress who would not yield her attention to him. By the fourth movement, he has given up hope, and, after taking what he thinks will be a lethal dosage of opium, dreams he is attending his own beheading for murdering his beloved. In the fifth movement, the witches come and dance on his grave while the spirit of his beloved laughs on, mockingly.

By the light of a perfect full moon, I worked through my part, which is but a small puzzle piece in the huge scope that Berlioz concocted to express his dramatic feelings. Glaringly missing from the second violin's music in the fifth movement is the Dies Irae, a hymn of Judgement Day, which is sung instead by the menacing lower brass. At the sound of the traditional three death chimes, they begin the Gregorian chant, which in turn incites the violins (a.k.a. witches) to frenzied dancing. Though my part doesn't contain any of this chant, I did not need a recording to imagine the sound of it; my brother Tom's trombone heralded the phrases as clear as the moon, resurrected from a sudden memory of marching bands and magic.

My first experience with Symphonie Fantastique occurred when I was in high school. Our football program at Tulsa Union High School outshadowed most everything else at the school, and games between rivals could draw crowds in the tens of thousands. The Backyard Bowl, Union vs. Jenks, has gained even national attention, with over 40,000 in attendance some years. While I've always been "adamantly against football" (to quote the silly, dramatic words I used in high school), the years in which I attended Union rode the front end of this crest of popularity, and the marching band program benefited from the attention as well, both audience-wise and financially. We had an especially brilliant band instructor who could arrange just about anything, and my freshman year, he chose the last two movements of Symphonie Fantastique. It was Tom's first year for marching band, and the workload required to memorize both the musical part and the choreography was staggering. After devoting most of the summer to practice, he took the field with 180-200 other high school students during the half time show to reenact Berlioz's beheading and subsequent witches' orgy. Flags waved, and the brass bellowed. The resulting experience was so electrifying that it left an impression that remains fresh, all these years later, as I practiced my own part for the upcoming symphony concert.

The darkness brought by the power outage left the moon to create a singular spotlight, and in its light shone my brother's trombone. I felt a certain affinity and swell of pride at the thought of the Dies Irae, and how perfectly suited for the part he was, and how the swing of the pendulum brought me back to the march of his steps for completion. Unrelenting, the idée fixe continued, as I dreamed of a witches' sabbath by moonlight.

3 replies

Violin Teacher

September 18, 2013 12:00

I am a violin teacher. I'm the person you call when you decide to venture into the world of stringed instruments and want to know what to do next. Or maybe you called me because your kid won't stop bugging you with their dreams, and you know it's what any good parent would do. Maybe you didn't get to take lessons when you were a kid, and now you're your own boss, and the time is right, and you're just brave enough to take the role of a student, even though it's been twenty years since you had a homework assignment. Whatever the reason, you came to me, and I'm glad you did.

I am a violin teacher. I'm here to make your dreams come true. Maybe you wanted to play in Carnegie Hall; okay, I can't promise you that. But I can promise you that you'll find that I can make a musician out of you, the kind that plays because you like the sound of it, because you enjoy expressing yourself, because it's a safe retreat from the rest of the world's cares and troubles. I can promise you that. But only if you trust me enough to follow me there.

I am a violin teacher. I'm here to show you how to succeed. But you're going to have to work for it. I might ride you if you don't practice, or if you don't follow instructions; I do have sharp spurs, and I know how to use them. But I'd prefer not to. Yes, you will have to put a lot of effort into taming this wild horse before you can call it your own, but there's joy to be found in the discipline, and if you're not careful, you might find yourself making ludicrous statements, like, "I like playing scales" or "The etude this week was fun." It's been known to happen. But only if you practice.

I am a violin teacher. I have lots of expectations. I expect you to ask questions if you have them. I expect you to at least try. I expect you to tell me if I can do anything else to better help you. If you don't communicate with me, I can only guess about what makes you tick, how you think, or what your likes and dislikes are. So go ahead, tell me your favorite color, your favorite composer, your favorite candy bar. (Go ahead: you earned it!)

I am a violin teacher. I'm very experienced. Trust me, whatever musical problems you struggle to overcome, I've been there myself. I will never give you any advice that I haven't had to follow myself a thousand times over. So, you never have reason to feel embarrassed about mistakes or put on the spot when you sight-read. Don't worry: I've been in your shoes. I'm not perfect, just a problem solver who's a little further down the road.

I am a violin teacher. I teach because I want to infect other people with my passion. I know, I'm a little obsessed, and sometimes it's all I talk about. So, I apologize if I get a little too excited about things like intonation, and the genius of Mozart, and Baker's magical rosin, and the superior qualities of wooden wind-up pendulum metronomes. But think about it: who else do I get to share my excitement with? You came to me for lessons, but I took you in because I need a few more string players in my life, and you're the perfect candidate. You hang out with me, and watch out: I'll make a violinist out of you.

9 replies


September 11, 2013 08:46

The audition could have gone better. Had I been able to perform publicly on a consistent basis, or at least been able to put myself in front of my students, or dogs, or whatever (yes, turtles, I admit I didn't use you nearly enough), I might have been more comfortable. But really, it's called stage fright for a reason, and I hadn't taken the actual stage for an audition since, well, high school. Twenty years. How's that for stage fright? So, given the circumstances, I played acceptably. My bow arm suffered rigor mortis from the sudden death it feared, so the phrasing in the Mozart came across as choppy and inconclusive. But the runs mostly came out. And the rest of the audition? Well, it went. I missed a shift in the Bartok, and they let me redo it, unexpectedly. Afterward, I couldn't get far enough away from that audition, and I was thankful for the 150 miles that separated me from home, which would allow myself to unwind as I drove.

But 150 miles... When the news arrived the next day that I'd secured not only a position as a substitute violist, but a tenured position as well, I actually cried. I should have been overjoyed! I was definitely flattered. But 150 miles... I looked at the schedule. As a tenured violist, I would be required to attend all rehearsals, and this included not only the usual five classical concerts, but the pops concerts, the Nutcracker, the children's concerts, and the silent film--I simply could not make the commute. I'd already committed to a full semester of teaching 35 students, and even if I threw prudence to the wind, I had no housing, no way to pay off the loan on my current violin, no possible way to be a full-fledged symphony musician without moving to Anchorage. This was me, the poster child of the Advocacy of Dreamchasing, taking an ice-cold reality check.

The decision must be made. I slept on it. I began a letter, half a dozen times, but procrastinated in sending it, just in case I'd overlooked something, or circumstances had changed somehow. The next day, as I walked the dogs in the neverending rain, I thought over all the discussions that had gone back and forth, and seemingly impenetrable "no" surrounding the possibility of moving to Anchorage. When I returned, I saw the number flashing on my answering machine and replayed a message from the personnel manager, who sought to ascertain my decision; they needed to print the season programs and would like to know if I would be added as a tenured player this year. I picked up the phone. My heart sank. I would have to turn down the tenured spot and remain a sub.

It was not until four in the morning that, having awoken inexplicably from a deep sleep, it all finally hit me. I'd dozed off on the couch; alone in the darkness, I felt a sudden surge of anger and pain. This was not just a fanciful dream; this was my career! I'd worked so hard, so many hours a day, all these years, and now I was forced to deny myself the reward of my efforts. And for what? For what? So I could play Sousa marches in the community orchestra? So I could play unaccompanied Bach, all alone in my studio, crossing my fingers in hopes that ASO needs a sub for the next concert? And what if they don't? Entire years have gone by without a phone call. I'd end up teaching my 35 lessons a week, paying my bills like a good girl, growing old in quiet resignation... At four in the morning, when these thoughts assailed me, I felt like hopping in the car and driving far, far away. I didn't even know where I'd go; this time of year, I'm always overwhelmed with a strong, survival-driven urge to migrate. Quick, before the snow flies.

Is the best answer to move out of state? Am I only being discontent and overlooking all the positive aspects of being a violinist in Soldotna, AK? Am I losing hope in my vision when everything is getting ready to finally come together? I don't know. I do know that I will be subbing for the two fall concerts with the Anchorage Symphony. I'm incredibly grateful for these opportunities, and I practice faithfully each day, in hopes of future playing and performing opportunities. I'm grateful for the time I've had to myself, to be able to devote my undivided attention to practicing and improving my skills. It's been a good journey so far. ...Rough at times, but this is Alaska, after all.

I don't know what's ahead. I keep hoping it's something good. We'll see.

13 replies

The Panel

September 4, 2013 02:57

I have an audition today.

I love auditioning. I love the thrill that comes from performing under pressure, putting one's reputation at risk, the week of stressing out that precedes it, the bloody nail biting, the voices in the head shouting, "Don't mess up, they're all judging you!--What is that note, anyway???" Yes, the untold bottled-up anxiety that surges through my veins at just the right moment during a tricky run is such a rush. Love it, just love it. Makes me want to run off the stage and out the loading dock door, and not stop until I hit the Chugiach Range.

This week, instead of my usual Wednesday teaching routine, I have rescheduled most of my students in order to make room for a special trip to Anchorage. Then at 7:20 pm, I will be standing on the stage in Atwood Hall, before a panel of my colleagues and Meistro Randall Fleisher himself, and I will play through my prepared excerpts and concerto in an audition for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra. The last time I auditioned for anything was back in 2006, to join the same symphony. Thankfully, they decided to use me, and I've enjoyed many happy adventures on the stage with them ever since. This time, however, I will be playing the viola in an attempt to expand my playing opportunities with them.

It's not like I'm unprepared or unqualified. It's not even a difficult audition, since I'm already in the symphony and I know everyone on the panel: the battle is completely mental at this point. Unfortunately, it's a battle I struggle to win. To help reduce the symptoms of performance anxiety, I really wanted to practice performing for people, which is a crucial part in the preparation process. But Melissa's out of town, and so is Maria, and quite honestly, it's been a while since I've had anyone over--outside of 35 students and their families, of course.

Unable to find an audience, I dug out my favorite torture device--the Video Camera of Penance--and began my Hundred Takes of Mozart, ready to purge the living bejeezus out of every last run. As I made my way back and forth across the living room to hit the delete button, I sensed that the camera was not the only pair of eyeballs fixed on my every move.

(From Left to Right: Turdle, Enos, Sheldon, Randy, and Slim)

From the top of the sofa, they sat in a row, giving me their undivided attention; their faces held nothing but the most sincere interest. After forty takes, how could they still be so attentive and encouraging? Yet there they sat, with nary a criticism.

Bolstered by the stamp of approval from five onlooking friends, I played on. What a difference ears can make--now, I had something to communicate! I played my best for them, and when I messed up, they didn't even flinch. Randy may have even cracked a smile when I nailed that one particularly hairy run. Surely, I could trust this panel! Still feeling nervous? Simply pull them out of their shells, and who can be nervous about a turtle with no shell? It makes me smile just thinking about it.

What if they were all just turtles, and I was their best friend? What harm can be done in thinking so? My hands stop fidgeting, my pulse slows, and I feel peaceful and secure once more, and happier than I've been in days.

Thanks guys, I owe you one.

17 replies

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