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November 2008

Family Music

November 29, 2008 07:49

A few years ago, at some holiday conversation where I don't remember the holiday, around when my daughter first started taking violin lessons, my brother and I talked about what we had gotten out of our music education growing up and what we wanted to do with our kids. 

My brother is a talented singer, after a few years in school with a baritone horn bigger than he was, he decided to use his voice as his primary instrument.  I'd always been somewhat envious of his singing abilities, and it turned out that he in turn had been somewhat envious of my orchestral and instrumental playing.  We'd been told over the years to do one thing and not another.  He wasn't allowed to play the trombone by the elementary school band teacher, which was what he'd really wanted to do.  I'd been told I couldn't sing. 

And this was generational:  our father has told us the story several times of how he, in the early 1950's, was steered away from playing the flute and toward the clarinet by well-meaning music teachers wielding various assessment tools.  He claims that, because he already had braces, they told him the flute embouchure would be too difficult, and that because he "couldn't carry a tune in a bucket" they told him he couldn't play anything else.  He never took to the clarinet and gave it up after a few years. 

This year we had another conversation, and a concert.  My brother and his family came to our house for Thanksgiving this year for the first time.  They have two kids now ages, 2 and 5.  Their 5-yo daughter, like our 5-yo son, is in kindergarten this year.  They look alike, too:   two little tow-headed kids at the computer.  Like their parents, they like the computer, maybe a little too much.  For a change of pace, my brother suggested that we play something on the violin. 

My daughter is learning 3 Christmas Carols to play at the Christmas pageant this year:  O Christmas Tree, Angels We Have Heard on High, and Silent Night.  We have another violist in her class who will play too (a different violist than her friend from last year, who quit).  But for now, it's me again on the B part.  With all the excitement of visitors and the holiday, my daughter's practicing has been a little haphazard (as has mine), but when she wants to, she can focus.  We play these 3, plus one of the Farmers' Market fiddle tunes, "On the Road to Boston" (in honor of our visitors), in the middle of the living room. 

After that, my 5-yo niece wants to play too.  I get out the old quarter size (the one that was not run over) and "Adventures in Violinland" to show her how to hold it.  She struggles a little but after a few minutes is able to hold it properly.  But she emphatically does not want to do pizzicato, she wants to use the bow.  And she likes the little family metaphors in "Adventures," grandpa string, daddy string, mommy string, baby string:  especially the baby, "ga ga goo goo".  Her grip on the bow tends a little too much towards a fist, but she manages a "how do you do," "ga ga goo goo" on all the strings that pleases her.  "I want to play a concert too," she says.

Fortunately, my brother is not ready to kill me for giving her ideas ;-)  Rather, we want to put to rest all those can'ts and don'ts lost in the mists of time, but still remembered.  I see that in my niece's face, and in my brother's, and in my father's too.

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Whew, that's over . . . NOT!

November 25, 2008 05:06

The Messiah has a lot of notes. 

I'm not yet to the point or level of preparation where I can lose myself in the music and be transported to another place, time, and plane of existence.  I'm still wandering through the forest of those !@#$% 16th-notes.  

Yesterday was also a remarkable example of the "travelling dining room."  Monday morning is the day I walk my son and his friend to school.  They're in kindergarten.  Monday morning is always kind of a zoo when we are often not quite ready on time after the weekend.  So, grabbing my violin for my lesson later, I took a yogurt smoothie out the door with me to enjoy on the bus to work.

Lunchtime is time for my lesson.  I have to leave my office at 12 noon, stop by the cafeteria, pick up my grilled cheese and tomato on whole wheat to go and catch the T by 12:15.  I stand in the middle of the platform so that I can get off at the stairs that lead me right to the closest exit, and eat the sandwich between Kendall and Harvard.  I then throw out the wrapper and my skim milk carton in the garbage can next to the turnstile and make a beeline to the Longy school, remembering to 1. wear my gloves and 2. carry the instrument in my right hand, not my left (and 3. keep the music in the music pocket and not leave it on the train!).  Arrive at the school, wash my hands quickly, and ascend 3 flights of stairs to the room where my lesson is.

We are doing Messiah part 2, because I haven't had time to practice anything else this week.  I explain, apologetically, about my cough (which is getting better) and my teacher is sympathetic.  She's getting ready to go on tour and we won't have a lesson for 3 weeks. 

There are some tricky 16th-note passages in the Messiah, and remembering Tom's comments, I open to number 14 and number 53.  While the fingerings we discuss are useful, surprisingly, the most helpful thing I think I learn in the lesson is not to rest, mentally, while I'm playing.  I have the tendency here, and it was also in Cappricio Italien last month, to get through a hard passage, for better or worse, and just take a mental breather:  "whew, that's over!"  Unfortunately what this means is that the rest of the orchestra has moved on and my bow is not ready on the string for the next set of horrific 16th notes. 

In Cappricio Italien, there is in particular a set of ascending scales where you just can't stop.  For the last concert I practiced this section repeatedly:  getting both hands back where I needed to be immediately for the next one, no matter how the last one went, good bad or ugly, I couldn't rest on my laurels or roll my eyes about the missed notes. While Handel's Messiah is very different, musically, from Cappricio Italien, there is still something of the same fierce urgency of 16th notes in the violin part.  No "oops, I screwed that up."  No "whew that's over." 

I have started a new work schedule in which I stay in the office late on Monday and Tuesday and work from home on Thursday.  And we had our rehearsal rescheduled to Monday this week because of Thanksgiving.  So, again for the third time, I got my dinner on the way to the T and ate it on the way home.  This is not technically legal (at least the signs that say "no food or drink might indicate that" ;-), but I made it to rehearsal (just) on time, not hungry and not frantic.

Several people couldn't make the rescheduled rehearsal for various reasons, so there were exactly 4 of us playing 1st violin, then 3 after the break.  In the small rehearsal room we had plenty of volume, we were actually the right size for a baroque orchestra.  And the 16th notes came more easily this time around.  I'm getting there. 

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Sunday morning blues

November 23, 2008 06:39

It's the Sunday morning before my lesson tomorrow and I'm not feeling good about it.  I have this lingering, annoying, cough.  I don't feel sick enough to stay home, although I tried that at the beginning of all this.  It got a lot better at first and then didn't.  The problem with dropping everything and staying home is that you get clobbered with piled up work when you get back and never catch up.  This happened to a co-worker of mine last month.  She was out for several days and says she still hasn't recovered, work-wise, a month later. 

While I'm barely keeping my head above water at work, I'm feeling like I no longer really have the energy to practice from 10:30-11:30 pm, which is the only time I have to practice, at least on weekdays.  The weekend is already almost gone and while I got some decent practicing in yesterday, and will today, it isn't enough.  All I've had time to work on is the Messiah and a few scales for warm-up.  No etudes.  No solo pieces. 

I am learning the first violin part to Handel's Messiah for the first time.  When I listen to the recording on the T, it is transporting (in more ways than one), but it is also a very long piece.  Our parts have umpteen weird bowings and cuts written in and I'm trying to normalize them and bring them in line with what the conductor wants and what the section wants.  The conductor, who is a choral conductor, trusts us with what we want to do.  But we don't have a lot of rehearsal time.

And I'm just spinning my wheels as far as what I should work on in my lesson.  My teacher had good, useful things to say about the Messiah last week.  I guess it will just have to be Messiah, Part II.


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November 17, 2008 14:52

I know there's already a thread, "what's your favorite string quartet?"  But I need something simpler.  I haven't played a quartet since college, and the only one I remember playing is Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.  But I was invited to play in a quartet with some people from my orchestra.  My teacher thinks this will be a great opportunity for me.  What are some good quartets  for inexperienced players to start out with?

And have any of you started playing quartets recently, or as adults?  How did it start out and develop?  In this case, the violist is much more experienced, and so is the cellist.  I've requested the 2nd violin part, at least for now.  

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Playing in Church

November 17, 2008 05:22

The observation is made often on this site and elsewhere that classical music got its start in church.  Even though, officially, I started playing the violin in a public school music program, I would say this is true for me personally also.  Given the long and complicated role that Christmas music has played in my musical and spiritual life over the years, it's remarkable that I'm playing Handel's Messiah for the first time just this year, for the Philharmonic Society's Holiday Concert in December.

I played solo viola in church again this past Sunday.  Since the retirement of our music director, the interim director has been nicely flexible in allowing church members to play if they want to, and her husband, who is also a professional pianist and music professor, has been playing the piano.  He played with my friend and me for the Bach Double a couple of weeks ago and this week I had the opportunity to play the Clarke Passacaglia and two short pieces, Shenandoah and Hook's Sonatina, with him for the Prelude and Offertory.  I also ended up playing along, in more of a fiddling style, with two rousing camp songs in honor of Ferry Beach, the UU camp and conference center that the offering was supporting.  One thing I like about playing in church is that the music is usually about something.  This is an aspect that I think is lost from many modern classical concerts.  The programs are often a mishmash of different eras, different nationalities, different purposes.  I find that it helps enormously when the program notes and/or a speaker address the audience's need for knowing what the concert is about.  In church, this is less necessary.  On the other hand, I doubt it was clear to many of the parishoners why they were putting money and checks in the plate while listening to Rebecca Clarke's Passacaglia on an Old English Tune for viola and piano.  The ideal may be liturgical coherence, but the reality is often something else.

Performance-wise, it wasn't my best and wasn't my worst.  I've come to expect that.  My husband was home with our son, who was sick, and no one recorded it for posterity or discussion with my teacher today.  What I think I noticed most is that playing in front of a group of people is becoming a little more "normalized" in my mind.  The emotional lows and highs are being smoothed out and the raw edge of anxiety is being slowly whittled away, making vibrato possible again.  I mentioned to the pianist that I'd been surprised at how off my intonation was in the performance of the Bach Double was a few weeks ago and he just smiled and nodded and said he knew how it was.  He'd seen that kind of thing before and now, so have I.  And I survived to play another day. 

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Program Notes, or Project Management 101

November 12, 2008 09:21

Coincidentally I've been writing a couple of program notes/bios recently.  I am an enthusiastic, maybe obsessive, reader of program notes, so I think this is important.

My experience has been now, twice, that I have not been given clear guidelines relating to length, style, or content, until after I wrote something that was too long.  I was also not given a clear deadline for the first set, and only for the second after I specifically asked.  

At my day job, clear guidelines are some of the most basic things that need to be set up when a project is begun.  And "as soon as possible" is not a deadline.  That is just an opening for possible to not be soon enough.

Everyone is busy, including me, and I can sympathize with being overworked and preferring to concentrate on the musicality over the program notes.  But last-minute, seat-of-the-pants, deadline-less workflow wastes more time and is more stressful than just being clear up front.

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Music Sunday, and Why it's good to record yourself, even if you don't have good equipment

November 11, 2008 05:27

Two weeks ago our church had a "Music Sunday" in honor of our retiring music director.  The choir sang and I played the 2nd movement of Bach Double, finally, with a friend. 

I retired from the choir myself almost two years ago, after having been in it for something like 7 years.  It was one of the few unfortunate casualties of picking up the violin and viola again and joining an orchestra.  I couldn't justify another weekly rehearsal night. 

And this Bach Double performance has been kind of star-crossed too.  My friend and I had been talking about doing it for almost 2 years.  Being both violinists-turned-violists, at first we were going to try having her play the 2nd violin part on viola.  She plays viola professionally and it is her main instrument.  (I do more switching, and violin has been my main instrument this fall).  And we even warmed that idea up last spring by playing some fun, easy Mozart and Stamitz violin-viola duets for one service.

But when it came down to it, the Bach Double is written for 2 violins, and we both returned to our violin roots.  Our pianist, a member of the church and husband of the interim music director, is also a Professor of Music and he had some interesting comments at rehearsal.  It turned out that both of us violinists had first learned the piece as young students back in the 1970's, when a different style was in vogue.  We had learned a Romantic, lush style with a slow tempo and heavier beats.  I'd been counting 8th notes.  Our pianist suggested something different:  to make sure to feel the beat in quarter notes, to pick up the tempo, to have a lighter style.  Overall, I think we succeeded, but it was a surprisingly big adjustment.

The performance was very emotional.  I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by that, but I was.  Two of the choral alumni who had moved away came back to sing for the retiring director, one driving in from Connecticut.  At the last minute, a couple of my old friends from choir said "oh, you know these pieces, why don't you just come up and sing with us?"  There were two that I'd sung before:  John Ritter's "Look at the World," and "Douglas Mountain" (Arnold Sundgaard, Alec Wilder).  During the singing of "Douglas Mountain," I was overcome and started to cry.  I couldn't finish singing.  The Bach Double was 5 minutes later.

My husband recorded it with our little digital camera:

The recording quality is poor and he didn't have a tripod, but watching this was nonetheless very instructive for me.  Here's what I felt good about:

1. I didn't make any major gaffes. I came in correctly in all my entrances. There had been a misprint in my part that I'd never noticed before, and I remembered to correct it and play an E-flat when it counted. I didn't completely blow any shifts or miss any notes or major dynamic markings that I know of. I got from beginning to end without screwing up or crying again.

2. We played well together as an ensemble.

3. We got into the spirit of the Baroque style.

Here's what I didn't feel so good about:

1. Intonation. While it's glaringly obvious on the recording, it wasn't noticeable to me while I was playing. 

2.  Rocking back and forth.  The 2nd violinist manages to stand still while she is playing, but I don't.

I originally put this on YouTube to show my teacher, and of course the intonation is the first thing she noticed.  We discussed why I didn't notice it while I was playing.  It gets better as the piece goes on and when the same entrance/phrase comes back again it's more in tune.  We thought the most likely explanation was that I was emotionally rattled from the singing (and crying) that I'd just done.  There's been a discussion thread about violinists crying on stage.  Now I know what it's like for me:  I may want to make the audience cry, but it doesn't help the performance if I'm crying myself.


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Blogging, blogging, blogging

November 9, 2008 06:55

A couple of weeks ago, one of my section-mates in the orchestra told me he'd found my violin blog here.  While I knew this would happen, and I was actually surprised it hadn't happened sooner, I nonetheless felt a little self-conscious.  He normally sits right behind me in the section, and so my bowing--my everything, including the occasional tapping foot and missed entrance--is right there for him to see every Wednesday night, even without the blog.  He's a very good violinist, one of the best in the orchestra.  And I don't know his story very well, but we started talking about it that night.  I do know now where he grew up and that one of his former teachers is here on 

That experience, and the recent changes in the blog format have started me thinking about why I am blogging and what my goals are.  I started blogging just a little over 2 years ago, when I picked up my instrument again after a break of 8 years.  My daughter was taking Suzuki lessons and struggling with them.  I found this site when I was doing an internet search on the songs in Suzuki Book I.  What I first found was one of the teaching threads, about the song "Lightly Row/Hanschen Klein" that my daughter was learning.  I was impressed then (and continue to be now) by the thought that goes into teaching young children from the many wonderful teachers on the site.

I had also started a new job then that gave me more flexibility, and I guess something just clicked.  I realized that I'd be more effective helping my daughter if I started really playing again myself.  And then, after a few scratches and squeaks, it all came back to me how much I missed playing for myself.  I had returned my rental viola to the shop all those years ago when, 8-months pregnant and exhausted, I'd decided that something had to give.  And at the time, that something was music.  :-(

I thought that the discipline of keeping a blog might help me (and, by extension, help me help my daughter) keep going.  This has really paid off.  Two years later, my daughter and I are both still playing.  I learned about the 21-day practice habit, and both of us have done our 21-day stretches.  We keep written practice logs.  I've gotten suggestions for music, for tempos, for bowings.  I found one of my old NYSSMA judges from 1982.  I bought a viola.  The thread on marked parts got me marking parts.  I found both the courage to audition for a semi-pro orchestra and the equanamity to get over not making it.  I started studying with a wonderful teacher, with whom I think I get more out of my lessons because I try out ideas here first.  I have a somewhat regular performing schedule in church and at the local farmers' market--something that has required getting over bad stage fright to even contemplate.  I have a concert this afternooon with a great community orchestra.  My musical life feels very full and rich, and I am not sure I would even still be playing without this site, and this blog.

So those are my goals.  I want to keep writing a blog, a "weblog" of my experiences in music.  I don't see this as journalism, however.  I am not reporting stories of general interest and I'm not looking to write catchy headlines, leads, or who-what-when-where-why structures. Honestly I have a somewhat uneasy relationship with the "featured blog" feature.  For a while I cared too much whether my blog was featured.  If it was featured, I'd be excited, but then, like when I found out that someone I know was actually reading it, a little nervous too.  And then I'd want the next one to be featured, and if it wasn't I'd be inordinately disappointed.  I found myself writing with the goal of being featured, with that always in the back of my mind.  And not only did that not work out in terms of (not) getting featured, it also worked at cross purposes to my goals for this blog.  It made me approach the blog as work, as an obligation or something to cross off my do list, as a source of anxiety.  So I stopped paying attention to the featuring.  I read and wrote the blogs I wanted to, when I wanted to.  I still do that now, but I wish the list of bloggers and where they are from would come back.  I've read every blog on this site for the past two years and there are very few (if any) that I haven't gotten something out of.

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The numbers in my head

November 4, 2008 06:20

I had a very intense lesson yesterday.  It lasted an hour and a half and could have gone longer if my teacher and I hadn't both had other commitments.  Other than the lesson notes that I always jot down on the train on the way back to work, I waited overnight to really write about it but I'm still overwhelmed.  I feel like the past two years, since I picked up an instrument again after an 8-year break, have been a prelude to whatever comes next.

I'd been just noticing, but trying not to form an opinion about, my relationship to beat and rhythm since I started playing again.  In particular, I tend to feel the beat or the pulse in my body, not think it in my head.  Sometimes, during something particularly difficult like the contemporary piece I played last spring that went from 3/8 to 5/8 to 7/8 and back again, I'd tap my foot (or more accurately, twitch my foot within the shoe so as not to distract the other musicians or people in the audience).  The purpose seemed to be to get the rhythmic counting out of my head to make room in there for the notes and dynamics. 

I really don't--can't--multitask.  It makes me anxious and contributes to my stage fright.  And sure enough, the more nervous I get, the more tapping and twitching I do.  Sometimes I wonder if the people in my section in the orchestra can gauge how well I know the music by what my foot is doing. 

However, while I try to just observe this phenomenon, to be neutral in the moment, I also will get  a niggling voice from the past--an inner critic playing an old tape--in my head telling me that tapping my foot is "wrong" and I shouldn't do it.  Voices like this rear their heads now and then to tell me I shouldn't do--or think--many things.  Don't think in fingerings.  Don't write fingerings in your music.  Don't tap your foot.  Don't get behind.  Don't lose the line of the phrase.  Don't play too loud.  Don't play too soft.  Don't play out of tune.  Don't accent the downbeat.  Don't accent the end of the phrase.  Don't.  Don't.  Don't. 

This lesson wasn't originally going to be about rhythm anyway.  I thought it was going to be about high notes, shifting, and hand position.  I have been playing the violin in my lessons this fall rather than the viola because of the orchestra music and because of a performance of the Bach Double in church that I did last weekend.  To that end, I had decided to do violin scales and etudes, rather than viola scales and etudes.  I had also discovered, to my chagrin, that although I own a nice book of Rode etudes and thought I had done them in my teens, I actually haven't.  The book is mostly blank, the pieces unfamiliar.  So my teacher immediately picked out #5 for me to practice.  It starts with a pickup of running 16th notes to a D in 3rd position.  That D is followed quickly by shifts, on 4, to an F# and an A in 5th and then in 7th position. 

What I first learned from practicing this etude is that I had forgotten how much I hate shifts on 4.  I feel like I'm leaping into the unknown.  I don't know where my other fingers are supposed to be.  So I spent most of the week trying to rectify that situation.  I also found a place in the Mendelssohn where my avoidance of a shift on 4 was slowing me down and making it worse than just biting the bullet and doing the shift already.  I spent a long time on the first 3 measures of Rode #5, going from D to F# to A, up and down again, and placing the rest of my hand so I would know where the 1,2, and 3 were supposed to go.  I didn't even think about the rhythm.  I just wanted my fingers to be grounded and secure.

At my lesson we started out talking about the Bach Double.  The rehearsal for that had been largely spent talking about "feeling the beat" in 4 and not thinking 8th notes.  That had been a departure for me, as when I first learned the piece back in 1978 I had been told to count 8th notes.  The pianist said, "well back in 1978 you probably had counting problems, but you've outgrown those now."  Have I?  Maybe.  The counting at least went well, the intonation, not so much.

Then at the lesson we talked about the Mendelssohn and how to subdivide some arpeggios in the 4th movement that are conducted in 2.  How it really makes a difference, in my teacher's opinion, whether you think, literally, "one-and-two-and" rather than "one-two-three-four" or (as in my case) those beats without words that I think.  I realized again, and verbalized it for the first time in ages (if ever) that I don't normally count beats with numbers, with actual English words in my head.   But it helped to do that with the arpeggios.  It helped me drive towards the right beat and stay clear and in tempo if I thought of that beat clearly as "two."

Then came the Rode.  My teacher was on a roll with the beat subdivision.  "Three-and-four-and-ONE!" she exclaimed and wanted me to repeat after her.  I wasn't even sure which end was up.  "Don't I have to start right after 4?" I asked, confused (it was a pick up).  She explained that the little pick-up run was driving to beat ONE and that was why I needed to think of it that way.  I tried.  But when thinking of the rhythm I completely forgot/blew the notes and shifts.  Even worse, the numbers "one-and-two-and" got confused with the finger numbers "one-two-one-two-three".  I forgot which note I was on.  I forgot where I was in the measure.  I felt like my head was going to explode.  I then noticed that I was getting anxious again, feeling ungrounded and scared.  My hands were cold.

I wish I could say I rallied and played my best version of the Rode ever.  I didn't.  It was still pretty bad by the time the lesson was over and I had to leave and go back to work.  Even the shifts and the D F# A were still bad.

But what I have now is a new and very different way of approaching a new piece.  Being too focused on and distracted by isolated notes and shifts has not really helped me with those notes and shifts.  My teacher's suggestion, to the extent I understand it, was like making an outline or building a scaffold with the rhythm.  She said to think of the D F# and A on the beats 1,2 and 3.  To hear those first in relation to each other.  That's the first step.  Then fill in the shifts and learn where my fingers are in relation to each other as step 2 or 3 (or even 5).  My ear will help my fingers and vice-versa.  I can do this.  I think.

Learning to think of beat numbers in my head is going to be harder.  As I said, I don't multitask.  And my thoughts are so deep, so intimate, so much a part of who I am.  I judge them and try to change them at my peril, it seems to me.  Up until now, I really felt as if all my problems could be solved satisfactorily by writing them down, keeping a practice log, practicing a little every day, and searching the internet.  I had a confidence about my ability to meet the challenges of being an adult violin student that had carried me along for these two years and had gotten me surprisingly, and gratifyingly, far.  I am feeling less confident now.

At this point I have to take it on faith moving forward that this will work.  I do.  I have faith in my teacher, and it's not as if my former approach to intonation and rhythm has yielded particularly good results.  I need a change and change is in the air.  My teacher, who is subtle and skilled, has not joined the chorus of discouraging "don'ts."  She has instead given me something to do.

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