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December 2009

Rising to the Occasion

December 14, 2009 15:57

I've been playing in the Arlington Philharmonic Orchestra for almost exactly two years now, although it's been a part of 3 separate seasons, since I started in the middle of 2007-08, after I had a business trip and couldn't make the first concert.

My first rehearsal with the group was, well, a little scary.  I walked in with my (big, black, Bobelock) viola case, and the first guy I met asked me if it was a coffin.  I then fled to the back of the viola section and hid there, sitting with someone who actually knew what he was doing on the viola.  I don't think I'd even played half of the first piece before I started apologizing profusely and offering the feeble excuse that I'm really a violinist y'know, that's why I'm playing all those wrong notes.  It's not me, it's the clef.  Right.

Two years later, I am the concertmaster, and I am playing in a string quartet with coffin-guy and ex-stand-partner as the 2nd violinist and the violist.  (I mean this affectionately--no real names, this is the internet.)

How did I get here?

Well, you know . . . . Practice!  Practice!

We had our Winter Concert yesterday.  It was a big production with full chorus, the Arlington-Belmont Chorale.  We performed the Beethoven Hallelujah Chorus, Bavicchi 3 Psalms, and Schubert Messe in A-flat.  The rehearsal schedule was ambitious, and seasonal busyness and the flu depleted the ranks of the violinists.  And, there was Thanksgiving in the middle.  

And, there was the 8th-note forest.  Three pages of straight running 8th-notes in the Gloria, in E-major, with a lot of painful accidentals and no open D allowed.  The conductor described it as "violins, you are off to the races!"  The first time the challenge was just to make it to the end of the 3 pages without getting hopelessly lost.  I took a violin to my parents' with me over Thanksgiving and spent a half hour or so each day just fingering parts of the Schubert.  

I played the forest for my violin teacher about a week and a half before the concert.  It still wasn't up to tempo.  I still didn't get all the accidentals.  I still tripped and slipped on the shifts.  She said that it seemed like I "had most of the notes and the fingerings," but I'd "lost the chord structure."  Which, flatteringly, implied that there had been a time when I'd "had" the chord structure to lose.  

The principal second violinist sent around a link to a professional YouTube video.  This one, in fact.  I had actually tried to listen and follow along to a recording once before, early on in the process, and had gotten lost and distracted.  It had been too overwhelming.  But this time I was ready.  I listened to the Gloria again, and the 8th-note forest made sense now.  What had seemed like an impenetrable thicket was now something of great beauty.  I haven't had enough music theory to really understand the chord structure the way my teacher does, but I think I still "found" it anyway.  The performance was the best we'd ever played it.  The chorus always sounds good, but for the first time, during the performance, I felt like I was worthy of playing the piece with them.  

I'm not Catholic, and UU's aren't big on pageantry (we're the original cat herders).  But in music, sometimes, I feel as if I am getting some understanding of what the Latin Mass is about.  And why liturgies are sacred.  I voted "sacred" in Laurie's poll.

My stand partner for this concert was a local woman whom I met on  I invited her to join the orchestra last season, and she's going to stay.  Like me, she took a long time off from the violin, and came back to it in midlife, while working in another career.  She practiced very hard for this concert, and at the after-concert party, we were standing around with some of the choir members, discussing what had brought us to this point, to this orchestra, to this music, on this day.  None of us were superstars as kids.  In fact, a common theme of the stories was, "I just wasn't the type to practice 5 hours a day."  And, "my mother made me play the piano, and I hated it."  

So, why do we make our kids practice their instruments, even when they make it clear they'd rather be doing something else?  For days like yesterday.  When, after a good concert, and better company, we're all standing around the piano, singing Christmas Carols, in beautiful 4-part harmony.  

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Can I really write a whole blog about bow distribution? No, I can't.

December 5, 2009 11:05

But it seems to be a good example of what's been happening to me lately when I have a violin lesson.  I will be having a problem with something, like bow distribution, my teacher will point it out for that piece I'm working on, and then I'll see the issue everywhere I look, with everything I play.  Yixi was right, a beautiful sound really does come from the right hand.

I got back to the Franck 4th movement (however briefly) and expected to be slogging through the usual shifting challenges, intonation and vibrato issues, and trying not to screech.  And yes, that's all there, but with a new layer.  It turns out, it really matters how you divide the bow up in each note of a long slur.  The very first 5 notes of this movement sound different depending on whether you use more bow on the first note or the second.  It was counterintuitive for me to use more on the first B and less on the second C and third A, and then more again on the G and F down into the long E.  But just that made all the difference.  It changed the opening from sounding beaty and plodding to having more life and direction.  Hmm.

Then, about a week later, I suddenly got a small flurry of comments on YouTube.  I've had these videos up for more than a year, without much notice in the past.  They are of me playing the viola, specifically the Courante from the first Bach suite.  At this point, I feel pretty dispassionate about them, I haven't even really played the viola in several months.  It's almost like someone else is playing.  And why would this one, recorded in the rec room with my tinny-sounding digital camera, have been viewed 604 times??

Especially relative to this one, of the same piece, which was recorded by a friend with much better recording equipment at the Farmers' Market, which has only been viewed 372 times?

But anyhoo, the mysteries of YouTube aside, two of the commenters pointed something out that I'd been completely oblivious to at the time I recorded these:  that I spend almost all my time in the upper half of the bow.  I could plead viola in this case ("bow is too big!!"), but that would be wrong anyway, because here I am, a year later, having the same issue on the violin.  The internet just decided that this would be a good time to bring the point home?

This has been a busy week.  Last night, which was also my birthday, also happened to be the one night this week I didn't have something  violin- or holiday-related to do.  So I relaxed with my family.  But the night before, I played in my debut public string quartet performance.  One of the summer's musical soirees grew into a more regular group, and we played at Brookline's "First Light" Celebration.  The owner of the Real Estate office who hired us was wonderful, a lovely person who has deep roots in the community (and whose son took lessons from our group's cellist, which is how she knew of us).  I would love to do it again sometime.  

But there is also a reason that I am burying writing about what was otherwise a wonderful experience deep in a blog about something else.  After saying that I wanted to show up early to warm up, I ended up being 5 minutes late to the performance.  The reason had to do with my son's H1N1 vaccine.  There was a surprise clinic at his school that we found out about, by email, the morning of.  Then, I tried to delegate the task to his babysitter, but just as I was walking out the door to leave for Brookline, she came back from the school, saying that I needed to go with him to give consent and fill out a form.  She couldn't do it.  

I should have just skipped it then.  Maybe.  But I didn't.  We got in the car, ran to the school, got the nasal mist and then had to wait around for 15 minutes to make sure he didn't get a reaction, while I left messages on my quartetters' cell phones.  Then I brought my son home and tried again to go to Brookline, by which point the celebration was in full swing--driving in an unfamiliar area, kids with balloons everywhere--and parking was a zoo.  I ditched my car somewhere I hoped was not a tow zone and ran to the real estate office, arriving about 5 minutes after we were supposed to have started playing.  And indeed they started without me--now a violin, viola, and cello trio--on a couple of the pieces where I was playing 2nd.  I felt mortified.  And then I sat down, took out my violin, and started to play.  

As I played, I kept having this lingering fear in the back of my mind that my car was going to get towed, I was going to be stranded in Brookline and have to call and have my husband pick me up . . . and why hadn't the orgranizer of the group sent the email about parking that he had promised to send?? . . . or had it gotten lost or spam filtered? . . . and why does this kind of thing always happen to moms?  Of the four of us in the quartet, I'm the only mother--the only woman, in fact . . . I just read a really depressing study in which the researchers passed around fake job resumes, identical except for whether they mentioned they had kids or not, and the mothers were judged to be far less competent than the non-mothers, even when the resumes were otherwise the same--OMG what if it's true . . .  that wine they have over there looks really good, but not now when I'm playing . . .I really need to put this stuff out of my mind now, because it's nobody's responsibility but mine, and there's nothing I can do about it right this minute.  I just have to PLAY.

And believe it or not, I think I played surprisingly well.  After our medley of light baroque pieces, we went on to a full Haydn quartet, Op. 17 No. 2 in F major, where I was playing first violin.  The Minuet was probably the best we'd ever played it, and the Finale was humming along.  The people in the audience were sweet and friendly, someone from the Chamber of Commerce took our picture.  By 8:00, having missed 5 minutes out of 90 no longer seemed so dire.   The fact is, I *can* play under stress.  I just don't want to have to test that again any time soon!

But, tomorrow, I will be playing violin II in a last-minute concert of Elgar's "The Snow."  When I say last-minute, I mean last-minute for me.  The regularly scheduled 2nd violinist was ill, and I'm filling in.  This is, honestly, one of the most beautiful choral pieces I have ever heard.  I am so lucky to be able to be playing it.  And, there is snow expected tonight.  It's time!

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