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February 2008

February Vacation Week, Part III

February 29, 2008 05:35

Sunday: The alarm goes off at 4:40 a.m. and wakes up me and my daughter. Not my son--he has to be woken up. I dress quickly in the dark and drag the suitcases into the otherwise well-loaded car. My parents are up, drowsily, to say goodbye.

Grateful again for cruise control, I put it on 74 mph and head east on the I-90. Fortunately, Emily's cop doesn't seem to work here.

The kids sleep for about 3 hours. The road is clear of snow and pretty much of other cars too. I drink a yogurt smoothie from the cup holder. As I watch the sun come up, my mind wanders. I wonder again about why my parents won't move out of Buffalo. My father was a Chemistry professor at SUNY/Buffalo, recently retired. The living there is not particularly easy. The weather is tough and the economy is too. At least they were able to sell their house--but they are only downsizing, moving a few miles away.

Sometimes I wonder what I would do if I had to move back there for some reason. There isn't any tech industry to speak of, so my husband and I would be out of work. And I find myself wondering even more about music. I only know of one community orchestra in the area, but maybe there are more. It was kind of like that when I was growing up too: limited opportunities, limited scope. It wasn't really until I went to college that I began to understand what a wide world there was out there.

Despite the similarities in the weather, the Boston/Cambridge area where I live now feels totally different. It's technology central--literally--I work right next to a piece of real estate called "Technology Square." And the more I look the more I find musical opportunities galore. They don't necessarily pay anything, but if I want to play, which is my goal, I can. I have the reverse problem in Boston that I had as a kid: rather than feeling bored and stifled, I live in the middle of an embarrassment of riches, a banquet. I can't eat it all or I'll get sick.

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February Vacation Week, Part II

February 28, 2008 05:34

Thursday: I worked until 3 and then went directly home to start driving. My parents live near Buffalo, normally around an 8-hour drive. Somewhere in the middle of Eastern NY State, my knee got really tired and fortunately I remembered the car had cruise control. We got in at 11:30.

Friday: I went up into the attic. I didn't expect there would be much there, I knew there was a collection of dolls from around the world that I wanted to give to my daughter, but thought I already had everything else of value.

I found those and a lot more besides. In particular, there were two dolls--so well played-with that they are definitely *not* collectors' items--that had been two of my favorites to play with as a kid. They are a little brown-haired Brownie Girl Scout doll and a blonde Cinderella, a little taller. As a kid I adapted them from their original purposes and made them into Laura and Mary from Little House on the Prairie. (Their hair color and relative heights were right.) I would put them in a makeshift wagon and travel with them across the "prairie" in my backyard. I also played fiddle for them at night and tucked them into bed, the way Pa did in the books. These dolls were my first audience on the violin. I'm reading the "Little House" books with my daughter now, and she's enthusiastic about having the dolls. (She actually took Mary in to school to share for show and tell yesterday). I'm glad Laura and Mary are still around. I thought they'd gone to the great prairie in the sky a long time ago.

When I get to the very back of the attic, under the slanting rafters, I see something else: a violin case. What could that be? Is it a 3/4 size? I was sure we got rid of all those years ago. No, indeed it's a full size. I open the case, which is rusty and not in good shape. Now I remember, this was my violin #2 in high school. Barely above the level of a VSO even then, this violin lived in the school music room closet so I didn't have to schlep my good violin (the one still I have now) to and fro on the bus every day to orchestra rehearsal. I bring the case out to where there is better light, and I'm somewhat appalled by what I see. The varnish is cracked all over, the D string is missing altogether, the hinges on the case are almost rusted through. It doesn't smell very good. I didn't think this violin was still here either; I thought I remembered my mother trying to sell it. Apparently she didn't succeed. I take the poor old VSO out of the case and flakes of varnish crumble in my hands and onto the floor.

My daughter loves Laura and Mary and some other artifacts of my childhood, but not this. This would be like the scene in the Christmas movie, The Homecoming, when Elizabeth gets an old broken-down doll at a Christmas fair, she opens the wrapping and the doll scares her, and she runs away screaming. Violin is too hard already to be saddled with a something like this. Your instrument and its accoutrements should make your heart sing, remind you of love and joy and timelessness, not decay. I put it back in the case. "No thanks," I tell my mom. I put it in the pile of stuff I'm NOT keeping. Hail and Farewell, old VSO.

My brother arrives from Philly, having gotten stuck in a snowstorm in Pennsylvania. Sometime during the past week I got an email from another v.commie who went to high school with my brother, whose name is also K. Allendoerfer. She saw my blog and said hello. I pass this on to him and he's excited and says hello back. We go to dinner and have a great time reminiscing about high school in general and the stuff in our attic.

Saturday: I've had enough of the attic and take the kids skiing at Kissing Bridge, where I learned to ski. I'm not worried about breaking any bones; I've been skiing these gentle hills since I was around 4. And now, so has my 4-year-old. He takes a lesson in the morning, and in the afternoon he's doing turns and riding the chair lift. I'm excited! Now we really can start going skiing as a family.

When I got home there wasn't that much daylight left to load the car. I've had a good time but now comes the part I've been worried about for days: I have to leave around 5:30 on Sunday morning in order to make it back in time for the orchestra concert. I set the alarm for 4:40 a.m. I tell the kids they have to get up when the alarm rings but they can sleep in the car. I sleep fitfully, tossing and turning.

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February Vacation Week, Part I

February 27, 2008 05:25

Monday: Vacation week begins with Presidents' Day. I find out that my parents sold their house. They went to Tahiti and left the keys with the "real estate lady," expecting a long drawn-out process in this market. They come back <2 weeks later and the house is sold and the closing date is in April. Suddenly, I have to go there and rescue my stuff before the basement and attic holding it belong to someone else. I also have some other things to talk about with my parents.

Tuesday: I check my calendar for when I might be able to go to my parents' house, before April 10. The coming weekend looks pretty good, until I realize that I have an orchestra concert at 3:00 on Sunday. I check the other weekends. Husband's birthday. Visitors from Germany. Playing violin in church. Leading adult RE class. Second set of visitors from Germany. Talent show. Yikes. Okay, this weekend it is. Decide to give my stand partner music at Wednesday night's rehearsal in case I get back late for the concert warm-up. Tell boss.

Wednesday: Confirm with parents and brother that this weekend also works for them. Tell the kids that they are visiting the grandparents. Mention skiing. Kids are excited.

Go to orchestra rehearsal. Hear soloist, Pei-Wen Liao, play cadenza to Beethoven violin concerto 1st movement for the first time.


This girl is amazing. She has flown in from New York for a limited number of rehearsals. I'm new to the orchestra so I don't really know how she came to be playing with us. She won an award, a competition of some kind, last spring. She is by far the best violinist in the room. I had previously thought this competition was for local kids, maybe someone like my daughter who came up through the local public school program (but who practices more). I've accompanied concerto competition winners before, it's fun. But Pei-Wen is way above and beyond your "average" concerto competition winner. The person she reminds me of the most is David Kim, now concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. David Kim went to my high school, Williamsville North High School, back in the early 80's. He was a senior, concertmaster of the District Orchestra when I was a sophomore second violinist. He played for fun in the school orchestra during the week, in between commuting to New York on weekends for lessons with Dorothy Delay. One concert we played Vivaldi's Four Seasons, with him on the solo part. Like David, Pei-Wen has completely confident, sure fingers. (Mine tend toward fuzziness). They are shaped like they were meant to hold a violin, as if they are more comfortable held in that position than any other way. She has the same poise and confidence that come from knowing the music inside out. She's not nervous about making a mistake--she doesn't need to be. The music is so much part of her, she always knows what's coming next. She doesn't make mistakes. It would be like making a mistake walking or breathing.

When she plays the cadenza, at one point it's as if there are two violins playing. Double-stop trills, two soaring melody lines. And she has a little smile of concentration on her face, setting it all in motion. She's in the cockpit of a high-performance jet, or maybe the Starship Enterprise, flying.

When she is done playing, you can hear a pin drop. The orchestra manager speaks for all of us during the announcements before break. "She took my breath away."


Tell stand partner and conductor that I will be driving home on Sunday morning and might be "late for the concert warm-up." Apologize profusely. Hand over music (marked part with all the first violin section bowings). Pack suitcase.

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Family Concert

February 19, 2008 14:49

My first orchestra concert in >12 years :)

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Rethinking the concerto

February 14, 2008 04:46

Since I've started playing again in the last year and a half, concertos haven't played a big role in my musical life. As an adult student with limited practice time, informal performing opportunities, and lacking access to an appropriate pianist, I just didn't see where they fit in. I did learn some parts of the Telemann viola concerto when I first picked up the viola. I enjoy the piece, listening to it can put a smile on my face, but honestly, as a technical learning experience, it's too easy. (Walton and Bartok, on the other hand, are HARD. Too challenging for me at my current level, at any rate). I've been happily puttering around instead with shorter pieces, etudes, and orchestral music.

But at my lesson this week we batted around this mad plan to audition for the LSO on both instruments again. I need two pieces in contrasting styles for each audition. For the viola, it looks like I'll be able to play the Clarke Passacaglia and a movement from one of the Bach cello suites, probably the Courante from #1. But for the violin? The Preludio from Partita in E would need too much work. A Handel sonata? Hmm, she says, maybe not challenging enough. Oh dear. "Could you play a movement from a *concerto*? Maybe Mozart?"

A concerto. Well, actually, in fact I did learn Mozart #3, 4, and 5 in high school. She suggests the first movement from #3. I sing a few bars for her--is that the one? Yes, you still have it in your ear, that's great. Wow. I really haven't thought about this piece in years and years, except for a discussion thread several months ago about whether it should start with a down or up-bow. (I voted down).

But she has a point. This is really a wonderful piece. So what if the last time I looked at it was during the Carter administration?

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Talent, or lack thereof

February 13, 2008 05:43

A new thing I am experiencing in my lessons is that I am "practicing" in front of my teacher. She is having me repeat problematic passages several times so that she can watch what I would do at home. This week I went over the first set of double stops in Clarke's Passacaglia. The final one in that phrase, which I am fingering with 3-2-0 on the C,G, and D strings, has been hit-or-miss intonation-wise. Not only that, it takes me a long time to prepare it, so I tend to have a big break before launching into it--and then when it's out of tune after that: UGH.

Anyway, she had me play the notes before and go into just the G played by the 3 several times. Then I added the 2, which turned out to be a bigger whole step away than I was imagining, and suddenly it sounds better, much more reliably. At home I probably never would have thought to break it down that way myself. Also, she said that when I adjust my fingers for intonation, I often do it so quickly and make such a big adjustment that I overshoot the note in the other direction. I hadn't realized that either. I just knew that the adjustments I made didn't always work the way I intended. This observation fits in with a theme here that also applies to shifting--avoiding jerky, imprecise motions. I can avoid them, but not unless I'm aware of them in the first place.

And then there is the wayward first finger (and second finger, and third finger, and fourth finger). When a particular finger doesn't have a job to do, it's not uncommon for me to find it flying up in the air, waving to me from the fingerboard. Especially if I'm also trying to do vibrato on another finger at the same time. No wonder my intonation can be spotty.

But in spite of all this, my teacher still manages to make me feel talented. This is no small feat. Many other teachers I've had have helped me feel talented too, but a few have not. Browsing the rest of, one notices that talent is often discussed but little understood. There are many stories about how this or that genius was told once by one of his teachers that he had no talent and would never amount to anything. Ha-ha! Score another point for the value of hard work and the triumph of the human spirit.

But this seems, on the face of it, to be a pretty stupid and mean thing to say if one is a teacher anyway. And I've never in fact had a teacher come out and say anything like that to me. But I have had a teacher ignore me, or try to teach me with a method that didn't fit. I have had the experience of slipping through the pedagogical cracks and feeling given-up on. I think that may be much more common than the blatant put-down, at least in modern times.

I feel blessed to have a teacher who "fits" with me, believes in me, and makes me feel talented. It's not the same thing at all as empty "self-esteem"-building praise. It comes from specific analysis and problem solving related to my needs as a player.

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Finding the Clarity

February 6, 2008 08:18

In my very first lesson with her, my teacher repeated the phrase "find the clarity" several times. She's never been wrong yet, she clearly knows what she's talking about, and she's an excellent player, so I trust her judgment--yet I have not really been able to make that concept work for me so far.

There's something weird and unsettling to me about the thought of "the clarity" being out there lying around somewhere for me to find, rather than being something that I build or create by my own sweat and tears (virtual ones, anyway). Similarly, for me, the writing process has always been more of the second than the first. When I write, clarity comes from building up, paring down, rearranging, agonizing. It's not just out there to find.

And the very nature of the violin, too, seems to work against the idea. The violin is made of wood and metal and animal parts, it's got imperfections galore. And I'm even more so. I don't have absolute pitch. I try to tune to A440, but I can't hear the difference between A440 and A441, or A439. And if my A happens to be at A439 today, then all my other notes are going to be the same, small, interval off, and I'll never know. It just seems to me that the best I can hope for is to be in tune with myself, to make all my notes and strings in tune with each other. If "the clarity" is some kind of Platonic ideal, I'm still firmly rooted back here in the cave.

But . . . last night I was practicing a nosebleed 8va section of the Violin I part of Copland's Outdoor Overture. It's very exposed when played with full orchestra, and last week in rehearsal the 1st violin section sounded pretty bad, as a group, in that spot. And I'm sure I made my full contribution to that overall badness. The conductor told us he didn't want to waste the rest of the orchestra's time while we learned the part and exhorted us to spend more time on it at home.

So, okay Mr. Conductor, I agree. I'm trying. I've already been over it with my teacher, and I have fingerings that are do-able in principle. I've listened to Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the SF Symphony on this piece over and over again. I know how it's supposed to sound when played well. But, here in the practice room, just me and the violin and the music, it still sounds "bad" anyway.

Until I realize that my first finger is waving around unnecessarily when it's not playing. It shouldn't be doing that--it should be helping me get my bearings up here. That's better. Also, the intervals are small up here. And, I really don't need to jump as far back when shifting down. Check against the open string. Flat again. Flat, flat, flat, I'm always flat. And that's what's doing it: the wayward first finger, the overshifting, the overestimating the interval distance.

When I finally "nail" the high E on the A string, for the first time maybe ever outside my lesson, it rings! And the D below it (closer, closer, closer . . . this is way up there and the notes are closer together) . . . yes, it rings too. It sounds "good" . . . hard to explain, not just in tune, but really good. It seems almost too good to be true. Did I finally find the clarity?

I have another rehearsal tonight, so I'm not going to look this particular gift horse in the mouth. Maybe it's time to take a problematic leap of faith. I don't have to believe the clarity is really "out there" like some patron saint, but maybe, with enough experience, I can still learn to trust myself and my instrument to achieve it.

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Not too slippery, I hope

February 5, 2008 05:40

I'm running seriously now into the problems of trying to play two instruments. Last week at orchestra rehearsal, I acquired a semi-"permanent" seat in the front of the violin I section. The concertmaster can't play the concert due to a family conflict, so her stand partner is going to be concertmaster, and I am going to be his stand partner. I was asked to do this by the orchestra manager, the new concertmaster, and one of the other first violins who said he didn't want to move up, and the conductor is also fine with it. This is theoretically good by me--I like sitting up front where I can see and hear--but I'd been concentrating on practicing the viola that week and thinking that I'd take a little breather on violin at rehearsal back in the back where I started out. No. Then we went skiing, to Okemo VT, this weekend. My daughter had a day off school and it was a long-planned trip. I didn't take an instrument. Didn't break any limbs, either--but still, 3 days off of practicing suddenly really matters. I am not really done with Fiorillo #10, although I'm making some progress, and my double stops in the Clarke Passacaglia sound crunchy. And so I postponed my viola lesson yesterday. I normally take them every two weeks, but this will be a 3-week gap until next week. I'm feeling guilty, hoping this isn't some kind of slippery slope where I end up doing neither one well.

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