I thought I could practice. I had all the time in the world to practice. Got my refill of coffee and twenty etudes, enough to keep entertained all day. But something happened to my mind. I absorbed myself in left hand technique today, after spending three days mostly on the right. Every time I concentrate on shifts, double stops, and finger dropping technique, I fall into some kind of intonation-induced trance. Forget about musicality, about the bow, about anything except these softly droned featureless notes. My ears strain as they beg for smoothness; meanwhile, the notes iron out the wrinkles in my brain, too.
George interrupted to notify me of the phone call. Courtney says we will have a costume party next week, and could I make it? I don't know. I went over my schedule with her. She noted, "You sound really tired." I wasn't aware of any fatigue. Returning to the studio, I found my way back into a Bach Partita. Slowly, I drifted off in my mind and came back again somewhere after two pages with no recollection of what I had just played.
I'm not tired. My mind is dull, thoughts far away. Perhaps it's because we haven't made it above freezing all week, and now I'm coming to grips with the fact that it's here: Winter. The bears get smart and check out through this part. We'd like to join them, sometimes.
Anyone want a scarf?
I knew there was a deeper reason why he was my favorite.
"If I can't drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat."
I have to confess, I burned my bagel twice today. In a row. The first time was typical and excusable: I'd occupied myself typing happily here at my computer until the charred victim's screams finally reached my nostrils. With a semi-frantic dash to the toaster oven, I assessed the incinerated carcass and emptied the toaster oven contents into trash can, swiftly, in order to avoid burnt fingers and cover up the crime.
Guiltily, I popped in a second bagel, aware of the fact that George would notice two were now missing from the bag, and I would have to admit that I burned one. He had warned me earlier--on four separate occasions, mind you--that this new oven toasted things really fast, to which I scoffed, "Oh yeah, like that's the most incredible oven I've ever seen. And you've said that four times already, gosh!" Continuing, I teased him for showing signs of premature senility.
I'm not sure exactly how much time elapsed during the second offense; I forget. I returned to my seat at the computer, glanced over my shoulder at the glowing window, and saw once again a black object where a golden brown one should be. The repetitive nature of my folly is embarrassing; the demise of Bagel Number Two was identically dismal.
Should I try it again? I'm a violinist; I inserted Bagel Number Three. This time, I watched. You know what they say about a watched pot never boiling, right? Have you taken the time out of your schedule to focus on a bagel long enough to watch it toast? Normally, I would call this an arduous task, but not today. It wasn't like watching leaves change color. It wasn't like watching stubble grow on a chin, or even like watching a sunset. No, it unfolded more like a time lapse in a science film. In about fifteen seconds, the edges started to tan. Two more, and the middle began to brown. In a total of only twenty seconds, the bagel had achieved deep sienna. I've never seen anything like it.
Three bagels later, I guess George was right after all. At least it didn't take four times to figure it out.
I read the posts, I begin a comment, I take it back with the delete button. Over and over for days, it goes like this. Why? I’m second-guessing the value of my thoughts, the likelihood of being misunderstood, my lack of credentials, the appropriateness of the subject, the general lack of cleverness, unwillingness to intelligibly back my opinion with fact, apathy, redundance, and of course, there’s that old saying about if I can’t say something nice... I must admit, my train of thought has been almost completely useless to this website lately. I’m befuddled, tongue-tied, mentally constipated, and completely bothered about it. So, I will sit back and read everyone else’s thoughts on the subject at hand until I can think of something worthwhile to write. Either that, or I’ve got to stop caring about whether I’ve got something worthwhile to say and just fill that space anyway.
"Why can't I play it over here?"
"Because they said to play it up one octave."
"Who are they?"
"The people who wrote these songs. See here?"
"Are they really smart?"
"I don't know."
"Did Veftoken write this?"
"You know, Veftoken. He's really smart."
"Yeah. Did he write this?"
"No, unfortunately not. Move up one octave."
If Veftoken wrote "Rollercoaster," I would have a better accompaniment. But just around the corner, there's Ode to Joy. Oh, joy!
My first instrument was also the piano. I began at age four, and I still remember my first song I learned, called “Middle C.” (You could probably sing along–middle c, middle c, here we are at middle c.) The drawings of stick people above each song created amazing stories to go with each new concept, stories about stepping up stairs and skipping down the sidewalk. Middle C was home base, and D became an exciting new friend to meet. I greeted each note with my little fingers, enthralled with the sounds that could be made when they followed each other in different patterns.
Sometimes now, if I sit quietly and play a simple interval or two, I can re-enter the microcosmic world of kinder-music. It's only a fleeting glimpse, but I get the feeling that even when I'm not consciously participating, the notes can still connect me to that world as I practice each day. If for some reason I should forget how to get there though, I have these little gems that visit me in my studio to remind me how it's done.
Notes are amazing! Little girls think it’s fun to talk conversations with their fiddles. Open strings are voices that say, “My name is Bethany, how do you do?” They exclaim, "Listen, do you hear that note? It says its name!" They show off a discovery: "Watch me make a rainbow when I play the notes in a row all the way up."
Lines of notes take you places, not just up and down in a phrase. During a lesson, we travel over the bridge of Avignon, or play a game of hopscotch, or peck like chickens, or leap like grasshoppers. Legato, staccato, I asked for peanut butter, they gave me popcorn, but we'll get down that road one way or another.
Notes give instant access to transcendent notions. Seconds, thirds, fourths and fifths are all unique personalities, each resembling hope, good will, steadfastness, and truth. Don't be fooled; even a small child can embrace these intrinsic qualities of intervals and chords in wonder.
I must admit, I covet the rampant imagination of children. I asked a five-year-old girl once to find middle C for me, and she began to recite softly under her breath as she traced her finger along a path, something like this: “In the middle, there’s a sign, follow it down, beneath the shadow of the dark key, down on the other side, you’ll find it there, it’s always there.” I held my breath and sat very still, so as not to break the spell. I had just witnessed someone’s secret doorway into their own little music world!
Another distracted boy once had trouble keeping track of the notes as he played and would often end up in a different song altogether. I wanted to find out which cognitive road he was traveling, whether he navigated by note names or finger numbers or by watching the patterns go up and down, so I asked him what he looked at when he played. He pondered, “Oh, I like to look at the drawing of the clouds. I wonder what the boy in the picture is thinking about when he watches those clouds.” I wonder, too. Perhaps he is thinking of a different song altogether.
Today, Jonathan plays his lessons with accuracy and enthusiasm and asks the deeper questions, just like both of his siblings I’ve also taught. He wonders about the multiple characteristics of seconds and the temperament of high and low notes. I’m not difficult to persuade into a chase down a rabbit trail, and often times we both have to rein in our flights of imagination in order to complete the lesson agenda.
“I am going to play this song up on the high keys.”
“No, you’re not. You always play the melody high, and I play the accompaniment low, so today we will switch. You get to go all the way to the bottom. You’ll like the low notes; they sound like burps.” We switched places for fun. I had no clue how fun this was going to be. He began the Mexican hat dance, and sure enough, his seconds and thirds rumbled out of the lower register of my piano like garbled belches. Eyes screwed shut, mouth agape, his entire body seized with laughter. I can only guess at the images he had in his mind; his face was priceless!
“We gotta do this again!”
No problem. I wouldn’t mind doing this forever.
I have a highly specialized skill. I realise I don’t make a salary anywhere near what my skills merit, but my generous nature and overall desire to better humankind overlooks this small incongruence. Every day, I gather students from all over the community into my specialized studio, and I teach them to accomplish an amazing feat:
We count to four.
We count in numerical order, too. On a good day, I can get two of us counting to four at the same time, even synchronized to steady, calculated pulses. It’s complicated stuff; don’t be fooled. At times, I even change the speed at which we count. For further challenge, I like to throw in clapping at regular intervals, often at the same time that we count to four.
Once we’re pretty certain of the pattern, I throw them for a loop: we count to three. Whoa, that number four, they’re certain that it’s still there somewhere, but no. We move right on past the three and back to one. You can fit three quarter notes in, or one quarter note and one half note, or even a dotted half note, but the whole note will never go when we count to three. It’s special.
(I apologize for jumping into such deep concepts with so little elaboration. If it’s confusing, you may just have to come in for a lesson and see for yourself.)
Yes, it’s a bit like a three-ring circus. It’s not for the faint-hearted, mind you. Only those with nerves like a tight-rope walker are able to perform this function in front of a large audience. But you see, this is exactly what I’m trained to cultivate. I’m specialized.
Violinist Frank Almond tells the life story of the 1715 Lipinski Strad in his new recording, "A Violin's Life."
Emily Grossman is from Soldotna, Alaska. Biography
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