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October 2008


October 26, 2008 04:11

Mendelssohn. The subway. Sometimes the incongruity of the music on the iPod juxtaposed with what's going on in day-to-day life can be a little jarring, or surreal. Like an out-of-sync soundtrack. I'll be walking through a sort of dingy, dimly-lit passage surrounded by a stream of commuters and in my little audio bubble, I carry the Reformation Symphony.

This past week has been difficult at work. The economy is deeply affecting everyone. Biomedical research, like the arts, is somewhat dependent on private philanthropy. The lab I work in does Parkinson's Disease research and we were recently awarded a big collaborative grant from a private foundation. Then some time went by without our receiving an award letter from this foundation, and at first we joked, "better check the stock market" and see how the business is doing.

Alas, that was not actually funny, or a joke. The foundation suspended the grant indefinitely, ironically on the very day we had gotten many of the collaborators together to talk about and kick off the research project. We had people visiting from New York, from Alabama, even from Germany. Now the future of the research is in doubt.

There are other projects for me to manage at work; the lab itself is still relatively well-funded. But I had had a special place in my heart for this project, having written a large part of the grant along with my boss and caring a lot about having the research succeed. This is not a reflection on the quality of the work. My boss still believes in it and we will keep it going in a limited way; hopefully the market will recover sooner rather than later.

In a coincidence of timing last week, I got off the T and went up to my office, arriving just as the 4th movement of the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 was finishing in my ears.

A few weeks ago, looking for a good recording to listen to, I googled the piece and found a wikipedia entry: This one is unusually detailed for a wikipedia entry about a symphony, I think. The following sentence in particular has stayed with me: "Mendelssohn had considered the Reformation Symphony as one of his failed works, and did not allow for it to be published.[citation needed] However, the piece was published posthumously in 1868 and is now performed by many orchestras worldwide."

Several theories are offered for why this piece was not performed at the celebration for which it was written. One particularly tragic reason could have been anti-Semitism, despite the fact that Mendelssohn was a devout Lutheran in practice, he had Jewish heritage. Caught in forces of history too big for any one individual to overcome, this great symphony has washed up again here on my little beach.

I took off the headphones and announced to my office mate, "I just love Mendelssohn. Sometimes it just helps." He smiled and nodded. My office-mate's brother has terminal brain cancer, nearing the end-stage. Sometimes music is really just what gets you through the day.

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October 24, 2008 04:31

Last night, in anticipation of a possible first frost, I composted my remaining tomato plants. This latitude has a short growing season and my yard is shady, so the plants lived on my rec room roof, where they got sunlight. They grew right above where my daughter and I both practice our violins every day. One experiment I didn't do: a control for music. Would they have grown better or worse without the violin music coming through their floor?

Two of them I grew from seed, carefully nurtured and "hardened off". One I bought at a greenhouse. The greenhouse plant, of the "Sweet 100" variety, yielded approximately twice as many tomatoes as the two from-seed plants (I don't know what variety they were, "red cherry" it said on the envelope). This is the first year I kept statistics. Red cherry were redder, bigger, and rounder. Sweet 100's were smaller, oranger, and more prolific. They were sweeter too, but both tasted good. Many evenings they wouldn't make it from the plant to the salad because I'd just eat them on the way.

As in music, I enjoy the careful nurturing part: the anticipation, the potential, the "what could be" when you open a new seed packet or buy a new piece of sheet music, or start a series of rehearsals. I'd rather not just buy from the greenhouse. Or the supermarket. Or the CD store. But, as in music, I have trouble with endings, and closure. With "product." Even though they were not looking their best anymore--brown leaves, spots, no more tomatoes since I'd harvested them all, even the green ones, in anticipation of this moment--there was something sad and edgy about dumping them unceremoniously into the compost heap. I'd been putting it off for that reason. And now trying to make it more ceremonious by writing about it. I tend to be all about process. Not product.

I know that next year they will contribute nutrients to next year's plants, and so it goes. That musical analogy is harder for me to make, though. As the days get shorter and colder and winter closes in, I feel less able to imagine the fruit.

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What a week

October 16, 2008 04:20

Okay, so first my old half-size violin got run over, and now this.

I left my music on the T. I had it yesterday morning at the Harvard Square T station and was following it while listening to the music, on my way to work. I was sitting on a bench doing this, then the train arrived, it was crowded and chaotic, and I'm not sure what happened then.

Somewhere between Harvard Square and Kendall Square, the music seems to have disappeared.

At least my iPod didn't disappear.

And, in trying to be a conscientious section leader, I had scanned in the parts and emailed them to the section in order to distribute the bowings. So, I still have the scanned parts, with bowings, and can print them out.

Note to self: don't take original music that doesn't belong to you on the T. Make copies and take those on the T instead!!!

But, at least one positive thing: I misjudged the Godard flute suite. It's fun to play it live, with a real soloist. She sounds great. Maybe the problem was listening to a recording of it on the T, where the flute mixes in with the squeaking of the wheels for another kind of "symphony."

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Metallic, yet Fluffy

October 15, 2008 07:37

We're playing a pretty traditional Fall Concert in about a month. What I mean by "traditional" is that it has a mix of styles and nationalities, but they're all safe, beloved DWEM composers, starting with a couple of short pieces and anchored by a symphony. And there's not an erhu, a harpsichord, or a didgeridoo in sight.

Yet I'm having some trouble getting psyched about playing the Godard Flute Suite. We will have the first rehearsal with the soloist tonight. I've been listening to a recording for a while at this point and the piece is not grabbing me. I am probably going to offend some fine musicians here, but I am starting to think that I don't care very much for the flute as a solo instrument. It sounds a little like it looks: shiny, metallic, and hollow. And the piece as a whole strikes me as too fluffy, like a French bon-bon that is just too sweet and sugary. I take one bite and I'm done.

Except I'm not done. There are several more rehearsals before the concert, some with the soloist. So I do have time for the piece to grow on me and to learn to appreciate it. If I can.

The same feeling came back to me again last night, when I was practicing with my daughter. Her teacher is doing a "pencil contest" every week in which she gives a pencil to the student who plays a designated piece with the best intonation, rhythm, and posture. My daughter had already pretty much decided that she didn't want this week's pencil, because the designated piece (called "Song for Maria") was "a pain." The more I pushed (and I don't think I even pushed very hard) the worse it got. "I *hate* that song!" So I stopped pushing altogether. We let Song for Maria go and went back to O Susanna in the Mel Bay Fiddling Book. And so she came home and said, cheerfully, "I didn't get the pencil."

I don't care whether she wins the pencil, but it has gotten me thinking about how to approach pieces I just don't like very much, and how to counsel others on the same. I've been viewing the Godard sort of like taking my vitamins, or riding my bike to work: I just have to do it, it will be good for me. And I'll be glad I did it afterwards. I'll probably even learn something. But it's so different from my experience of the Mendelssohn, which is equally new to me, but which I loved from the first hearing, and which sometimes, even now, just moves me to tears.

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Lucy R.I.P.

October 14, 2008 18:41

Just in time for Halloween, I got this phone call.

"Hi Karen, I had a catastrophe that I need to tell you about."

"Oh no! What happened?"

"You know that half-size violin you loaned my daughter for the year?"


"It was in the driveway, and we were locked out of the house, and . . . it's a long story that I don't feel like talking about right now . . . but it got run over."

"With the car?"


Alas, it wasn't in a Bobelock case.

Rocky (the bow) survived.

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Fall Concert

October 7, 2008 06:50


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October 4, 2008 05:03

I was planning to write something different in this blog. Last night a well-known fiddler came to our town and gave a concert. It was reasonably priced and took place in the high school auditorium. I took my two kids, ages 5 and 9. I was looking forward to this concert all week. We skipped soccer practice and karate to go.

Unfortunately, however, this was not an experience that was going to turn "the public" on to fiddle music unless they were already favorably disposed to it.

First of all, the concert was advertised as a show by the professional fiddler and his group. His picture and a picture from the cover of one of his CD's were on the flyer. But as it turned out the first half of the concert consisted of the middle school and high school orchestras playing, together and separately, with the fiddler as conductor and members of his group in the sections. They were dressed and seated like traditional classical orchestras. These groups played well, and it sounded like they had learned a lot. But it wasn't why we had come--we had come for a professional fiddling show. And the student groups were not mentioned anywhere in the advertising. Furthermore, all of the music on the program was new and/or unfamiliar, and while a small effort was made from the stage, it was not particularly well explained or introduced. There were no program notes.

What struck me most, however, was how awkward the auditorium/stage format was and how generally inappropriate it felt to the music, even in the second half, which was the professional fiddling set. The auditorium was overheated and dark, and my son fidgeted, whined, and tried (unsuccessfully) to sleep. The fiddler himself, who, from what I could see from the relatively large distance between us, was a friendly, folksy guy with a warm presence, wasn't really able to connect with the large audience. Maybe others felt differently--there were some scattered heads bobbing in time to the music--but I felt too removed from the action.

Finally, during one of the pieces in the second half, the audience started clapping to the beat, led by members of the student orchestras. Everyone perked up, even my little whiner. We needed more of that.

I'm not mentioning any names here because I don't feel this would be fair to the musicians. They played well under difficult circumstances, and my daughter told me, enthusiastically, about the demo they did in her school earlier in the week (whereas the concert itself was "okaaaay"). I applaud their dedication and the hard work they did with the kids. I don't want to just complain and not offer any suggestions. So here's my main point: Big traditional auditoriums are not the place for fiddle concerts! Have it in a gym, set up tables, make a "coffee shop" out if it. Involve the audience and/or the kids differently by having them play shorter pieces in smaller groups. Don't make the kids wear black gowns and suitjackets like they are playing a classical concert. Keep the lights on. And don't overheat the room. It's only October.

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Learning to like performing . . . maybe

October 1, 2008 04:19

Last month my daughter and I played at the Belmont Farmers Market. She saw another girl a few weeks earlier, a couple of years older than she, and wondered if she could do that. She was also motivated by the idea of earning a gift certificate, which the vendors surrounding the market will give to performers.

It was a good goal to have over the summer, when school was out and there were no lessons. Her friend, who played the viola last year, decided to quit the viola in favor of the clarinet, so we were on our own. We were working on the Mel Bay's Easiest Fiddling Book, recommended by Laurie Niles in this thread. I wrote a couple of B parts for me to play along as well, one to "On the Road to Boston" and one to "Home Sweet Home." We learned 7 or 8 pieces, and put them in order, and listened to them every night on the CD.

Then the performance, originally scheduled for July, was rained out and I rescheduled it for August. It was hard to keep the momentum going for another month. We learned a few more pieces and went ahead in the EE2000 book. Then the day finally arrived. A friend, whom I met through the Arlington Philharmonic Society, agreed to come and record us with his nice recording equipment (I posted his recording of me playing the viola solo in a previous blog. It makes a big difference.) So, the day dawned with beautiful weather, and we were all set.

We got there, got out our music, and my daughter got really scared. We played can-can together, and got through it just barely. She was having a fight-or-flight response, and it looked like flight was winning. Unfortunately, I've been there myself. And the next up on the program was "Yellow Rose of Texas," her solo. She refused to play it. So I suggested we play it together.

I'm really proud of how she did this. She's clearly nervous, but she's working hard to overcome that. And after that, it was a lot better. We played everything that we planned to. This is her "swing version" of Liza Jane (she added a syncopation rhythm that isn't written in the music and said that "it sounds much better that way"):

And here is the finale, "Home Sweet Home," in which I show my composing skills on the B part, and my "playing through even when the music blows off the stand" skills.

She was very happy, smiling from ear to ear, when she was finished, and said she wants to do it again next summer.

Then I gave her a break from practicing as a reward for a couple of weeks. But now it's started again in school, and appears to be more serious than last year. Her teacher is asking for a daily practice log, initialed by a parent. At least now she knows the drill.

And so does "her daughter," Grace:

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