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September 2007

Who Needs Sleep?

September 30, 2007 05:41

Yesterday I took my daughter to the town's Saturday morning music school. It's an adjunct to the in-school program--in my opinion, a necessary one. The students are divided up according to their instruments and grouped with a professional teacher on that instrument. There were also high school student helpers there who are doing community service. There are many more opportunities for orchestra performance with this group than there are in the school program. The downside: it meets from 8-10 a.m. on Saturday mornings. They were selling T-shirts that had printed on the back "Who Needs Sleep?"

Who needs sleep? That question reminded me of the thread going on right now in the discussion section started by a 13-year-old who has to practice 4 hours per day, on top of schoolwork, and whose mom yells at him if he doesn't. While I've never practiced 4 hours a day myself, my best friend and stand partner for a year in high school had a similar experience to the teen from the thread. We were best friends and stand partners during the school year when we were 13/14. She was a freshman in high school and I, having skipped a grade earlier, was a sophomore. Her parents were on her case about both academics and violin as long as I knew her. She ran away from home the following year; we lost touch for years and made contact briefly again as adults. At that time her life was pretty troubled and she'd quit the violin altogether.

We really were best friends for that year we were stand partners: played duets together, went to youth orchestra together, had the same crush on the same guy. It's been a long time but I still miss her. The stand partner is an interesting, complicated relationship, one that people don't talk about very much. I guess for professionals the relationship must be brief, superficial, and strictly business (or is it? Do some pros in orchestras sit with the same person for decades?). But it's also a situation where you get to know the other player's playing pretty well: her style, her idiosyncracies, where she gets lost, how she counts measures rest, when and whether and how she practices the orchestra music. And you sit next to your stand partner for a long time, hours on end, every week, baring your own soul as you play. Depending on where you sit, you might be able to hide from the conductor, at least for a while. But you can't hide from your stand partner.

I started subscribing to Strings magazine a couple of months ago. There was a discount order card along with some sheet music I ordered from Shar. It's great, I love it. Such fun to read on the bus/subway. People read all kinds of stuff, mostly the Boston Globe, Metro (a free daily), and books. There was a lot of Harry Potter a few months ago, for obvious reasons. Occasionally I'll see someone reading a scientific journal article (as I have also been known to do), but I've never seen anyone else reading Strings magazine.

One article from this month's issue that caught my eye was called "College of Arts and Sciences" by James Reel. It is about fiddler Brittany Haas, who is now also an undergraduate at Princeton University studying evolutionary biology. This article had a lot of resonance for me: I'm interested in fiddle music and was glad to be introduced to Brittany Haas. And twenty years ago, I was also a violin-playing Biology student at Princeton.

What I'll discuss here from the article is something a bit different, though. Fiddler Darol Anger, whom Haas has played with, is quoted as saying "I (and a lot of other people) encouraged her to go to college so she could get a degree in some other field than music, for her own personal development. Everything you learn in life feeds into your music, so nothing is lost." He also says, later in the article that "Touring musicians face an uncertain and difficult future . . . Travel will become much more difficult in the coming years, and most communities will lose arts funding as weather and government-related catastrophes pile up. . . . If you are talented in science, especially life sciences and environmental science, that's where the crucial work needs to be done. Music is essential to life, but played for fun and for community is where it's at."

I told the student on the discussion thread that when I was his age, I had started to make a decision about my life. While the decision wasn't fully conscious and completely thought out at the time, I think I was rejecting the path my friend and stand partner had been put on. Instead, I was starting to commit to being a scientist and putting most of my energy there. I haven't regretted it. Brittany Haas is certainly the better violinist of the two of us--and may very well turn out to be a better biologist too--but her story speaks to me as a role model for the new millenium.

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Time management

September 26, 2007 03:36

This probably sounds obvious to many of you out there, but it clearly wasn't to me. This week at work I started scheduling blocks of time in the day to work on different projects. I put these blocks of time on my google calendar and set alarms. I also got new software, called CompanionLink for Google calendar, so for the first time I can sync all my work calendars (there are 3) with my home calendar and Palm Handheld. And since Google calendar is web-based, I have access to it pretty much anywhere, anytime, even if I forget/lose my handheld.

This is helping me with time management for several reasons:
1. (And most important). It frees me from the "tyranny of choice." I would look at the to-do list and become paralyzed by the sheer volume of everything on it. I wouldn't be able to decide what to tackle first. I would then duck the whole thing and log onto Now I look at the calendar, see what I'm supposed to be doing, and put my thought energy into getting the task done instead of fretting about the length of the list.
2. It puts limits on distasteful tasks. Even if something is *really* boring, or *really* difficult, I can keep at it if I know I only have to do it for 15 more minutes.
3. I trust my system. Now that all my calendars are sync'd, I don't walk around with that nagging, sinking feeling that I'm going to forget something important and it's going to blow up.

It's kind of funny how my workday now resembles a practice session: an hour for this, 2 hours for that, lunch, half hour to prep for a meeting, have a meeting for an hour, half an hour to debrief from the meeting, etc. There is some freedom within the categories and also the opportunity to reward myself for finishing early within the alotted time.

Should have done this earlier, but better late than never . . .

It's not perfect, though, I would still like more time to schedule for exercise and practicing violin/viola.

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More school music

September 21, 2007 03:57

My 3rd grade daughter and her best friend went to the instrument and method-book-getting session at their school yesterday afternoon. Her friend's mother took them because I was still at work.

I asked if they could size my daughter's half-size violin to see if it still fit her or if she needed a new one. She just turned 8, and is very tall (not because of me, because of my 6'4" husband). Many people who first meet her think she is older than she is, 9 or 10. The teacher said that if her arm grows another half-inch, she will need a 3/4 size. (I didn't get a 3/4 size until I was around 10, and then got a full size when I was around 13.) So I'll probably be renting another one soon. Her friend is about 4 inches shorter than she is, and got a viola that is almost exactly the same size as her half-size violin.

They are using a book called "Essential Elements 2000 for strings." It has two DVD's that include the Smart Music software. From looking through it, I think my daughter has seen a lot of it before in Suzuki, but there's more music reading than she had with Suzuki, and there are also more exercises written out that I can help her with at home.

I always had the problem with her Suzuki lessons two years ago that I had to remember myself (and/or write down myself) her exercises, and I wasn't always able to remember them from one week to the next. And then, she was very dependent on me during the week to provide her with practicing structure, which could get hairy. I'd tell her "your teacher said to do this" and she'd argue with me and balk.

So I like the fact that this book has diagrams labeled "bow builder" with good, detailed pictures, and other exercises like "scale warm-ups". Not just pieces like "Lightly Row" (although they have lightly row). I think she won't be as likely to try to avoid or talk her way out of the warm-ups and exercises and there will be less of an opportunity for power struggles and whining around those.

It also looks like they are going to be moving her to the "real" bow hold, away from the hold she learned in Suzuki where she puts her thumb on the bottom of the frog near the ferrule (just learned that word; it's in the bow diagram in the book).

When they got home, her friend and her mother had a number of basic questions, like how to loosen and tighten the bow, and how to put on the shoulder rest. Her mother played the flute in school, but never had anything to do with a stringed instrument. I'm noticing that with a many of the parents in the school: that they seem a little intimidated by the whole process of getting started with a stringed instrument. There's such a range of experience and understanding among the parents; it helps me put the attitude of my own parents--who were even more intimidated than my daughter's friend's mother, and were never involved in my practicing or lessons--in perspective. The string teacher seems to be handling it pretty well, especially with all the kids she's got to work with.

Her friend seems pretty motivated to learn the viola, and we parents are both hoping that the two of them will enjoy playing together for a long time to come.

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Smart Music

September 18, 2007 08:06

While I'd like to think that what I do musically is always smart, the above is the name of some educational software being implemented in my daughter's elementary school music program.

This year, third graders have a choice of playing violin, viola, or cello. My daughter chose violin, which she has worked on sporadically for the past two years using "Adventures in Violinland" and Suzuki Book 1, after a mixed Suzuki experience when she was 6. Her best friend chose viola and a third friend chose the cello. This program is very popular at this age. It's called a "pull-out" program, in that the kids taking string instruments are pulled out of their classrooms during the school day and sent to group lessons. More kids are pulled out than stay behind. But there is only *one* string teacher for all 3 instruments and two grades. Furthermore, this one teacher goes to a different elementary school every day of the week and is there for the morning. In the afternoon she goes to the middle school. She seemed great when I met her: young, enthusiastic, warm. But what a zoo these classes are going to be.

There is also an accompanying Saturday School, that's optional and costs money, where the kids have opportunities to play more group lessons with a professional teacher who specializes in their instrument and to play in an orchestra. Of course, this being soccer season, that is going to make Saturday mornings pretty full. But I think that's the most important part. It's especially important to my daughter that all her friends are doing it too.

Parents went to a school information session last night during which the band teacher gave a presentation on this program, SmartMusic. It's only been in full use in the district for a year and costs us $25 per family for the year. I'm trying to be open-minded, honestly I'm not sure what to think. The program generates mp3 accompaniment and allows the child to play along with the computer. You can also record your music and make mp3's out of it for posting and emailing. For beginners, it "listens" to you play, assesses rhythm and intonation, and gives you a score out of 100. A teacher demonstrated, playing "Old MacDonald" on the oboe with the accompaniment, both perfectly and then with some intentional mistakes. The program tells you which notes you missed, when you were late, etc. And Old MacDonald sounded surprisingly good. The teachers told us that the kids love the program so far and it's very motivating for them. They practice longer when they use it.

I think that would probably be true for my daughter. She likes computer games and also would like trying to improve her score by improving her rhythm and intonation. She also would probably take bad news about those things better from a computer than, say, from me. I'm cautiously optimistic.

But I'm also wondering if there's a downside. I guess I'll find out when I can't get to my computer because it's blocked by the violinist, violist, and cellist using it to play Old MacDonald accompanied by a jazz beat.

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September 13, 2007 04:40

The back-to-school time of year seems to be accumulating more and more layers.

Back in the spring/summer when I thought I might play the violin at the Farmers' Market, I found some old pieces I used to play well, among them the Bach E Major Preludio. I thought it would be relatively straightforward to get those pieces back together and perform them. Well, think again. I couldn't get it together with the violin and so ended up playing the viola again the second time and doing fine. It's funny, it's only in retrospect that I really have a sense of what happened. At the time I was just feeling discouraged--but I think now it was a misalignment of expectations, coupled with this ongoing working through of issues from the past and present. Playing the viola, for me, has this quality of being fresh, new, and innocent. It's something I started to do by myself, for myself, and it doesn't have any baggage. My playing the violin, however, has baggage going back nearly 35 years. Not quite as long as Charles Haupt was concertmaster of the Buffalo Philharmonic, but close.

So I started this thread, E Major Preludio for 40-year-old fingers. The story there is not quite all there. I'm really 41, for starters, but I did pick up the violin again almost a year ago now, when I was 40. And I actually have played the Preludio again a number of times since I was 15. Specifically, I played the violin quite a lot in my late 20's and early 30's, when I was a postdoc at Caltech. I took lessons. I played the Preludio for that orchestra audition too--and was concertmaster for one concert series (the position rotated). I played the Brahms C major piano trio too. Serious music. And at that time, I believe I was better technically than I was at 15. But, 7 years, 2 kids, and even less time to practice later, I'm starting over yet again. Still.

After Peter Kent posted his comment to the Preludio thread, and mentioned he'd been a NYSSMA judge for years, his name rang a bell. I wondered if *he* had been my NYSSMA judge all those years ago for that audition. So I went down into the basement and got out an airtight, watertight box (the basement is prone to flooding) where I kept all my old high school things. And I found the audition sheets. The judge for the Preludio, alas, was not Peter Kent, it was someone named A. Garruso, clearly a person of impeccable musical taste and understanding. I just have to repeat some of those comments: "Excellent tempo--clean playing. Bowing and fingering coordination excellent. Attention to dynamic changes also very good. Nice singing clear tone. Clean playing in all positions. Good feeling for the style. Again nice intonation-also in chords. Solo is very well-prepared and excellently performed." 100 points.

But even further down is the jackpot, what I was looking for. The next year, the audition sheet for the Mozart Concerto No. 5 in A Major, dated 1/23/82. The signature is legible enough to show that the judge is none other than one Peter Kent (hi Peter!).


There have been several threads and blogs about being a judge or educator in a public school system that I've seen since being on I just want to say "thank you" to all those people doing that job. Thank you Peter Kent, thank you A. Garruso. Thank you too to Laurie Niles and Patricia Baser and Paul Grant and Corwin Slack and anyone else whose posting I might have missed who is out there now in the public school trenches. You are touching your students' lives for years to come.

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September 8, 2007 05:02

Yesterday I did a scheduing marathon. If you have kids in school, at the beginning of the school year, you get inundated with calendars. In my case, the calendar for karate, for brownies, for the Nursery School Naturalist, for the school district itself, for soccer, for the school music program, and, I added, for the PSA Orchestra. Then I added my work plans, business trips, meetings, etc.

AAAAAAAH! The PSA fall concert is the same weekend I am going to be in San Diego for the Society for Neuroscience meeting, a work meeting that I have really been looking forward to, and that I couldn't cancel at this point if I wanted to. Shhhh-ugar!

Why did this not register in my brain at the rehearsal? Well, because I didn't look at the calendar until I got home and did the marathon scheduling session. It's not that tragic--I mean, there is a winter concert a month later, and I suppose the orchestra can get along without my viola skills for this one concert ;-) But still, I'm incredibly disappointed. I'd still like to go to the rehearsals, because I wanted to play the Kalinnikow. I'd never heard the piece before, but it is quite lovely. It reminds a bit of a Russian Beethoven: soaring melodies in the massed strings coupled with gut music in the brass and percussion. In community orchestras, the conductor has to be understanding, right?

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Nicht eilen, nicht schleppen

September 6, 2007 04:10

Reality Check. Last night, I went to an orchestra rehearsal and played viola: the Arlington Philharmonic. It started off inauspiciously when I couldn't find parking, drove around the block a few times, parked at a distance, and walked in late. (The rehearsal was at a church, a pretty big church. Usually churches have parking lots, right?) They were already rehearsing, and there were only two other violas, sitting at two stands. I went to sit with the one on the second stand. I asked him for an A and it turned out his Aing had just broken. No A for me for 45 minutes.

Coupled with the small viola section of 3 players including myself, this orchestra has a small first violin section (6 players) and an inordinately large cello section (~14 players). The second violin section seems about normal-sized (~10 players).

The music is interesting and challenging, and I've never played it before, on violin or viola: Symphonie No. 1 by R. Kalinnikow, Bizet's L'Arlesienne Suite No. II, several songs by Mahler that will accompany this year's competition winner, a young soprano. All the music markings for those are in German. Cool.

It became clear to me over the course of the evening that my original goal when I started playing again last year, to play in the Longwood Symphony, is overreaching for me at this point. My sightreading in alto clef still sucks. I got all the main melody lines (at least those melody lines such that the violas get), but there were some fast parts--not even that fast--where I just ended up moving my bow along, not touching the string, to keep the rhythm and not get lost so I could come in again when it slowed down and/or came down to a part of the staff I could read. And then there were the blown G-sharps. Ack.

Reflexively, even though they didn't say anything, I felt like I had to apologize to my stand partner, and even to the conductor when I introduced myself after the rehearsal. So many mistakes. I wasn't alone in making mistakes--but I'm used to playing, myself, at a certain level in an orchestra and I was not at that level. I even ended up looking longingly over at the first violin section a few times. There were only 6 of them, maybe they could use another one . . . (They're playing the William Tell Overture at the spring concert, and I played that at Caltech in the front of the first violins and it was a total blast. I just loved it. My most sublime violin moment for Laurie's poll was playing in an orchestra).

But that's all my stuff, not anybody else's . . . and I think I can get past it, because 1. The other members of the orchestra are really nice and welcoming. Two people related completely to my story of taking time off from playing to have kids. Another told me about taking up the cello in his 50's. 2. The conductor is clear and easy to follow. 3. The music is challenging and new to me, I'll learn and grow as a musician by playing it (can't tell yet if I actually *like* it, but that usually takes time). 4. Next week there will be 3 more violas, making a total of 6, which is almost a full section. But I think they still need me as a violist, it's nice to feel needed. And with only 3 stands, even if I'm last chair, I won't be that far back that I can't see the conductor . . . I hate not being able to see the conductor.

I was really tired, too. Yesterday was my daughter's first day of school, and her first day of soccer practice. This time of year gets insanely busy. I wondered briefly if the back pain of my late teens and early 20's would come back during a long rehearsal. But it didn't--yay!

So, I think I'm in the right place. No hurry, as the Mahler part says, "nicht eilen." Time to download a recording of the Kalinnikow to listen to on my way to work!

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