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April 2008

Fuzzy Fingers

April 30, 2008 04:33

After getting back from the long trip, and then having a concert, I also had my first viola lesson in a month. This one didn't go particularly well in some parts. The stress of my being away from the instrument for a while was showing. My teacher, who is normally very even-tempered, seemed a little frustrated. I don't blame her . . . and then, surprisingly, one thing she said during this frustrating lesson has really given me something to chew on and a new way to look at things.

I was playing my C-minor scale, and was out of tune on the Cing. Too low. Again. Probably from playing "too much" violin, I'm used to keeping my fingers too close together and not stretching enough. And she was telling me to "find the sound." And I wasn't. Finding. It.

"Watch your left hand." I was shocked to see how often it fidgets, adjusts pitch up and down before settling. Sometimes without my even realizing it.

And, furthermore, as Drew says, "everything affects everything." If my LH is fuzzy, my RH is too. The attack of the note is tenative and anemic.

So I tried something with the Clarke Passacaglia the last couple of days: I just played the open strings, in rhythm, without any left hand. So it starts, C-GGGGG, GGG, G, GGG. C-CCCC-C-CCC. Yikes. Sometimes the open strings themselves are not clear. They buzz and whine in all kinds of weird ways. It's actually pretty cool how many flavors of open string you can get, and notice, when you're not thinking so hard about the LH.

So, first some LH watching. Put the fingers down with confidence and make only necessary adjustments. No fidgeting. Then some RH only. Make the notes clearer with the bow. If it buzzes or whines, figure out how to make it stop on the open string first. Okay, now put it together: it sounds a lot better! I hope I'll be able to show her that at my next lesson.

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At Sea

April 29, 2008 03:57

Last week was another school vacation week that ended with a concert. And, like the last vacation, I was rushing home after a trip sans instrument, to play in the concert. This trip was amazing: we went on a Caribbean cruise on the Crown Princess. A different island every day: Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, Tortola, St. Thomas, beginning and ending in San Juan Puerto Rico.

Since this is meant to be a blog about music, though, and since we haven't finished uploading and processing the 500+ pictures we took, I am going to write about something other than the beaches. Cruise ship performances and performers are admittedly a topic that I haven't given much thought to in the past, and when I did, it was with uninformed disinterest. However, at night between ports you're something of a captive audience, and there are a broad range of shows to choose from: comedians, magicians, singers and dancers, Broadway-style musicals, and even a string quartet.

I was very curious about the string quartet. They were an anomaly amongst the general pop culture/easy listening/show tune atmosphere. I never found out what their name, the Quadrivium String Quartet, meant. I thought I would be able to google them when I got home and that they'd have a fancy website with YouTube videos and podcasts telling us when and how they were available for bookings. But alas, no. If I just search on "Quadrivium String Quartet," I get something like this: Neighborhood Concert: Quadrivium String Quartet (Members of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela).

This is not who I saw. I saw 4 middle-aged American performers, two men playing the viola and cello and two women playing the violins. They were set up in a part of the ship called the piazza, kind of an on-board cafe where you could order coffee and wine, sit at tables and chat with a view of several decks, the Bursar's desk, and the panoramic elevators. For them it looked more like busking than performing. They also were scheduled to play every afternoon right around the ship's departure time from the ports, to provide a festive atmosphere for the sail-away but not very convenient for those of us rushing back from the kayaking trip in our full-body sunsuits and hats, sunscreen on every other exposed part of skin, and sand in our hair.

They played an assortment of jazz and popular tunes, in tricky and complicated arrangements. The players were very well-suited to each other, as if they'd been playing together for a long time. Their sound was rich and seamless, even when they were playing something like "La Bamba." The performance was interrupted several times by announcements from the captain. "Would the following passengers please contact the Bursar's Desk?" Never anyone I knew . . . people who missed the last tender? People who mistakenly left their check-in card in port? I would idly wonder what happened to people who missed the ship. It never left late.

Since I've been playing the violin and viola again for the last year and a half, it has given me a different perspective on performers of all types. There is the aspect that now, having performed myself, I'm sort of "one of them." I now do know what it's like to "put yourself out there" for an audience, and there is certainly nothing like trying something yourself to give you a new or renewed appreciation for the personal risks that performers take, for the myriad skills required to do this kind of thing well (or even to do it mediocrely as in my case).

But there's more to it. I still wonder, as I'm sitting in the audience for the comedian making the obligatory jokes about tourist as cash machine or spending too much time at the buffet, fundamentally, why do people do this? Get up there night after night and say or do the same thing over and over and hope a group of strangers sitting there in a dark room will laugh or applaud or whatever? I'd still personally rather ride that zipline over the 800-foot-deep gorge or take my chances with the jellyfish!

Maybe it's an introvert/extravert thing. I took the Keirsey Temperament Sorter online several years ago. The test supposedly analyzes and gives your temperament according to the Myers-Briggs scale. My brother, a cognitive psychologist and human factors engineer, thinks Myers-Briggs is just another form of astrology, maybe worse. And he may be right. But learning my type, INFP, did seem to explain a lot. The first category, Introvert vs. Extravert, pertains to "where your energy comes from." Introverts recharge their energy in solitary pursuits; Extraverts draw energy from being with other people. By that definition, I'm an Introvert with a capital I. I enjoy being around other people at times, but it's very draining, energy-wise. This, more than fuzzy fingers, general lack of talent, or anything else technical, is probably why I never pursued music as a profession. It would make an interesting Weekend Vote; I would suspect most people who enjoy performing and/or do it for a living are extraverts.

I found the most sublime moments with my iPod out on the balcony to our cabin, looking at the moon on the water and listening to the Bach cello suites played on viola.

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What's next for my daughter?

April 14, 2008 04:25

And now for something completely different . . .

I've blogged about my daughter's violin experiences before, on and off. She first begged to play the violin when she was 6. She took lessons from a Suzuki teacher and liked the pieces (except for Twinkle, which she was bored by) but didn't really get along with her teacher. She's a bit "sensitive," cries easily, gets frustrated easily. Doesn't do well with "tough love." I backed off for the next year, and tried to teach her myself in a low-key way. We did a book of "Adventures in Violinland." Then, the following year, this year, at age 8, she started violin in school.

She has group lessons in school every Tuesday with Essential Elements 2000 and also did the Saturday music school supplementary program. Or, sort of did it. She had another "sensitive" meltdown early in the school year and took November and December off Saturday music school. Then one day in January she asked to go back, if I would go with her.

So I did. I was the only mother sitting in the group lesson with my kid. I asked the teacher, a local conservatory student, if it was okay, and she said it was. I helped out with tuning a couple of times and started to get to know the other kids too. I took them on bathroom breaks and helped get them back to the classroom in a timely fashion. My daughter started, slowly, to bond with the teacher, who was young and pretty and kind and enthusiastic.

But then it was over. They had the spring concert last week. They played "Twinkle Variations" (never get away from it, do you?), "Bristol Park," and "New World Symphony Theme." One night beforehand I played her the real New World Symphony just so she would be able to hear the real beauty of that piece. She complained a lot about having to wear a dress at the concert. Her tights were too tight. "I am a tomboy, mom! I don't wear skirts and tights! I look ridiculous! Sheesh!"

The Tuesday pull-out class is still going on. I invited my daughter and her viola-playing friend over to play some more EE2000. They're playing "Ode to Joy" and "Bile 'em Cabbage Down." We've now moved beyond the free trial of "Smart Music" that came with the book. I'd have to pay $25 to subscribe to the more advanced stuff, something I've been avoiding, not really because of the money but because it's complicated and I don't remember where I put the password or the instructions.

My daughter has outgrown "Lucy" and "Rocky," her half-size violin and bow. The daughter of me and my Paul Bunyan-sized husband, she is headed for basketball player-size herself by the time she is 12. I point this out to her and she's sad about it. She doesn't want to give up Lucy. "I only want a new violin if we buy one! I want to own it!" She's right, the whole rental scene at the school is a bit of a zoo. And, frankly, Lucy is a VSO.

Another thing I noticed: my daughter, in spite of all her complaining and her questionable practice habits, is a lot better player than her friend. She has been playing longer and had the Suzuki experience, where she actually learned quite a lot from the teacher she said she didn't like. But however she got there, her hand position--both right and left--is somewhat reasonable. She has to be reminded not to do a pancake (or "pizza") now and then, but her friend's playing has opened my eyes to a whole new level of bad habits.

This girl should probably not be playing a viola. She's tiny and has a tiny instrument, but she still can't reach the fourth finger consistently. She's scared of the fourth finger, in fact. Wanted to play Ode to Joy and just skip those notes (it starts on an F# and gets to fourth finger A pretty quickly). She pulls all her fingers back except the ones she's using to play. She holds the bow awkwardly, sort of a half-fist. She can't count rests, and still can't really read music. My daughter was getting impatient and her friend was getting frustrated. So these joint lessons are probably at an end.

But my daughter wants to keep playing violin next year. I'm trying to decide what to do: go to Johnson and get her a new violin? Keep trying to work with the friend, whose family is at a loss to help her practice?

I'm also wondering if it might be time to start the search again for a private teacher for my daughter. If she finds one she bonds with, I think it could be a nice, productive relationship rather than an ordeal that I feel like I'm inflicting on an innocent teacher. And she's finally gotten to the point where she seems like she can listen to direction and get some non-cringeworthy sounds out of the instrument. So music, rather than whether the teacher is "nice" and doesn't make her cry, might finally be able to be the point of the lesson.

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Musings on Science and Classical Music (thanks to Al's thread)

April 10, 2008 04:39

I got a Ph.D. in Neuroscience because I have always been interested in how the human brain works. I work now in a lab at MIT so I see and work with other scientists all day, all the time. Being steeped in that environment, I guess I'm a little shocked to realize (again) how science and scientific language appear to the non-scientists in this group in some of the discussion threads.

The aspect that surprises (and saddens) me the most is how dismissive and negative folks seem to be about scientific explanations for natural phenomena. Somehow, according to this view, science is dry, it's dead, it doesn't feed the soul. Similarly, I've always been somewhat taken aback by the contempt that much religious language shows for the material world: according to that view, this world is mired in selfishness and greed, it's "fallen." It's so irredeemably awful and bad that other worlds beyond our "mere" understanding have to be postulated to prevent us from sinking into the pit of despair.

Richard Dawkins, an atheist and a scientist, tried to take some of this on in his book, _Unweaving the Rainbow_, not entirely successfully from my point of view (and that of many reviewers). But one of his arguments I do remember quite clearly from the book: he says he gets these letters from people all the time wondering how he can be so sad, or angry, or pessimistic, or negative, or whatever--when he in fact is not that way at all. He's not the most tactful writer, and he likes to provoke. But even in his interviews he comes across as prickly, yes, maybe not the kind of guy you'd want to have over for dinner (or maybe you would), but also not wallowing in some kind of cesspool of despair and hatred the way he is often portrayed in the media.

At MIT too, I meet many non-theistic scientists on a daily basis. Geeky? Sure. Quirky? You bet. But overall, optimistic, generous, friendly, and hopeful about the human condition and its potential for improvement by our own efforts. Right here in the material, tangible world. Music also thrives in such an environment. The little violin- and piano-playing math geniuses grow up and work in a place like this. The beauty of the natural world and its laws finds expression in a multitude of different ways.

Scientific communication is important to me, and I take this as an example of how much work scientists have to do to make their work and worldview more accessible. There are a lot of parallels between the state of science and the state of classical music, as described in the other threads. With science, as with classical music, there is a sometimes earned perception that its practitioners are dried up, old, and out of touch, concerned with arcane trivia that don't matter to most people. The challenges of making both topics interesting and relevant to people who aren't highly trained in the practice are going to be with us for a long, long time.

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April 6, 2008 05:26

Last night was our church talent show, to my knowledge the first time the Colombi Chiacona was performed on a modern viola (by me).

My husband took a little digital camera movie of it, which I've been going back and forth about posting here, but have so far chickened out of doing. The video and sound quality are poor (aside from the content), he was too far away for the little camera and mic to get anything but grainy footage, and I was backlit by a stained glass window, which made the lighting flicker in and out as the camera tried to adjust. And there's the whole "digital camera recorders dampen the dynamics" problem that Jim pointed out.

But I still feel that I learned something from the process, up to and including the recording. For one thing, I talked to the audience, a new thing for me. Given how much I hate public speaking, I hadn't first planned on doing that when I signed up for the talent show, but I'm glad I did. I was inspired by the recent "state of classical music" threads on, in particular some comments made by Kimberlee Dray, Marina Fragoulis, and Jim Jonah about how much more enjoyable they find concerts when the performer talks to the audience. I realized that I agree with them wholeheartedly. At my last concert with the Arlington Philharmonic, the "family concert," the conductor said a few words before each piece too, and I think that made a difference for the kids.

I introduced the piece and how I came to be playing it, and told them that a Chiacona is a theme with variations. I played the 4-measure theme first and then said it would be followed by 16 variations and come back to the same theme an octave lower at the end.

The Talent Show follows the annual dinner, a celebration of finishing the year's fundraising and pledge drive. I spent quite a bit of the day rushing around making bread in the bread machine and getting my daughter ready for her own performance. Then, during the dinner itself, I opened the bottle of selzer water in the middle of the table, and it exploded, showering us with raspberry-flavored Poland Spring.

In a creative bit of programming, I, on solo viola, followed a kick-a** karate show by the "Red Dragon Demonstration Team" (my daughter and three other kids who go to our church and train at the same dojo), and while the audience was warmed up, my fingers were not. My skirt was nearly raspberry-seltzer-free, but my fingers were cold and stiff. And the talking made it worse, not better. By the time I started playing, I was shaking.

The recording shows the piece starting out pretty well: it's in tune and the sound is good and strong. However, when I got to some fast 16th notes, I started rushing, and the intonation went south (or actually, north--it was sharp). Apparently rattled by that, I blew a shift to third position. But, I recovered for a strong finish with nice double stops and ringing recap of the main theme.

What I find remarkable is that what I remembered most from the inside were the cold fingers and the blown shift. I have no memory at all of the rushing or the poor intonation in the fast 16th note passage--it was like someone else played that (and I wish it had been someone else!) I don't think any of it was particularly noticeable to the non-musicians in the audience. But from listening to the recording it seemed as if the rushing was linked to the poor intonation, and that both of them were linked to the blown shift. Recordings are a good thing. And, even better, I felt okay afterwards. I'm looking forward to improving and playing this piece again at the farmer's market--always on to the next project!

Okay, my husband put it on the web. So I'm going to give it a try posting it. It takes a long time to load, though.

Colombi Chiacona

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April 1, 2008 04:25

No, not that chiacona. In the March 2008 issue of Strings magazine, there was an article called "Flying Solo" by Sarah Freiberg about a piece called "Chiacona a basso solo" by Guiseppe Colombi, an Italian composer who lived and wrote in Modena, Italy, in the late 1600's.

As Freiberg explains, the piece was probably written for "violone," or an 8-foot instrument with long, pure-gut strings, tuned in 5ths a step below the modern cello. Freiberg, a cellist, re-arranged it for the modern cello and published it.

I've met Sarah once: she is the friend and colleague of a friend, Marilyn Boenau, who goes to my church. Both of them are active in the Boston early music scene. As it happens, the church is having a talent show this weekend in conjunction with their annual dinner. The performances will be eclectic, for example, my daughter is doing a karate demonstration with three of her friends who also go to this church and take lessons at the same dojo.

I've enjoyed playing the Bach cello suites on viola a great deal, and I'm looking forward to playing selections from the first suite again this summer at the Farmer's Market. But I'm always looking for something new to play on unaccompanied viola. Last time I played through my entire viola repertoire in less than 30 minutes. So I started arranging the Colombi Ciacona for viola, transposing it into alto clef from bass clef, where Sarah wrote it. Neither of those clefs is my "mother tongue," and I discovered pretty early on that all I really had to do was move each note up a step if I wanted to be quick about it and not think. But I really wanted this exercise to help improve my facility in alto clef so I kept at the painful process of translating the bass clef notation into a note name and then that note back into an alto clef note before writing it out. I ended up doing this on the bus to work for several mornings: about 15 measures at a time. For a 69-measure piece. I'd get home and play through the measures I'd written that day to make sure they sounded reasonable, since previous adventures in transcribing pieces into alto clef haven't always been completely successful.

I finally finished it this weekend, and so that my teacher would not have to be subjected to my by-hand, on-the-bus scribblings, I put it into Finale NotePad and printed it out to take to my lesson.

My teacher deserves a medal for putting up with the ADD-ish stream of different projects and instruments that I bring to my lessons. I told her I was going to bring this piece, but she'd never seen it or heard it before, and usually has her violin, not her viola, with her at the lessons. Still, she was able to play it, transpose it up an octave where necessary, and suggest phrasings and bowings for discussion. She has a very nice way of making suggestions without making me feel steamrollered. I usually take them, but they feel like a partnership rather than something handed down from on high.

Last night I was practicing it again the whole way through--after all, the talent show is this weekend--and I went back to Italy in my mind. I've been there twice, years ago, both times as an impecunious graduate student. I hiked around Rome and Florence and Venice, met other students on the bus to the Catacombs, survived Stendahl syndrome, and ate lots of gelato. I pictured the warm sun at the baths of Caracalla and thought, I could be the first person ever, on earth, to be playing this piece on a modern viola! How cool is that?

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