January 2008

Violin program in India needs strings

January 23, 2008 22:04

The first Suzuki Violin School in India needs strings and other violin parts and accessories; can we help them out?

That was the request I received from Violinist.com member Peter Buettner, whose daughter I wrote about several years ago here on Violinist.com. It seems that one of my favorite mentors, U.K. Suzuki pioneer Helen Brunner, recently visited Pune, India, to see this program, and she discovered them in dire need of equipment. This is what she wrote about the experience.

Helen discovered the program when its director, Rama Chobhe, came to study Suzuki pedagogy with her at the Colorado Suzuki Institute last summer.

"Helen introduced me to Rama at the Colorado Suzuki Institute in the Summer of 2007," Peter said. "Rama played Ragas for a very interested audience one evening, and afterward she talked about her school and the program she started with the desire to bridge Indian and Western music. I thought this was very fascinating and exciting. When I mentioned to Rama that I would be in India for business soon she invited me to come and see the school."

Helen visited Pune in late 2007 to see Rama's program and to teach for a week.

"From her experience it was clear that they sorely needed new strings and other supplies, as they are in short demand in India and extremely expensive for the students' families," Peter said. "Since I'm going in February, I'm trying to get the ball rolling, raising awareness ans support to get the school the necessary supplies. I will only be at the school for a weekend and will help fitting new strings and making small repairs to the kids' violins."

Helen plans to go back to teach in Pune again in 2008.

Peter's website with information about the program and about donating is: http://www.punesuzuki.org/.


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Believe what you play, believe what you teach

January 22, 2008 00:01

Nicolette Solomon stands in her cowboy boots on a sunny Sunday afternoon, light pouring into the red-carpeted, craftsman-styled music room where she's teaching a violin master class for our Suzuki group in Pasadena.

"He wanted a VICIOUS vibrato there," Nicolette insists in tidy, South-African accented English. "And that slide can sound a bit more cheap....I don't think Bohm would mind..."

She wants Rhett, who is about 12, to play it again, the "Introduction and Polonaise" by Carl Bohm that she's been helping him to schmaltzify.

"Have you got the tissues ready?" she asks the audience of about a dozen that are gathered for the master class. She's quite serious: expect tears. Turning back to Rhett she advises, "You've got to make us believe; no one's going to believe if you stand there looking really bored. You've got to have the pained look on your face..."

Rhett plays with more glissandi and warmth, and she leaves him with this thought, "Every day, for the rest of your life, you've got to believe. You've got to believe what you're doing on the violin for the rest of us to believe it."

She clearly believes. She gets everyone believing.

For little Charlie, age 6, who had a tendency to play over the fingerboard, she believed in the contact point. And I loved the way she appealed to his imagination to make him believe it, too. After he had played Papini's "Theme and Variations" all the way through, she asked him: "Have you ever heard of the Kreisler highway?" He wagged his head slowly: No. "Have you ever heard of Fritz Kreisler?" she asked, and again he wagged his head: No. Her eyes widened, "Well. Dr. Suzuki thought that Kreisler – Fritz Kreisler -- was the most beautiful, beautiful violin player in the world," she said, pausing for effect. She was not hurrying this explanation in the least. "Dr. Suzuki asked Kreisler, how did he do it? How did he play so beautifully? And he said: he played on the Kreisler highway." Charlie simply kept looking at her.

"Would you like me to show you the Kreisler highway?" she asked. Charlie nodded slowly: Yes. "I'm going to draw you a highway, so you can drive your bow on the highway," she said, taking out a black Sharpie pen and marking his strings. "It's like driving on a very narrow road."

Charlie examined his new "highway," then he played his entire piece, looking intently to make sure he was driving his bow on the highway. She explained afterwards that he could play on the highway for all his pieces, and she had him take a few of his other songs for a spin on the highway...

A good teacher makes it look so easy: find the one thing, explain it thoroughly, drill a little, imagine a little, enjoy how it makes all the rest a little better.

7 replies | Archive link

I love skiing!

January 14, 2008 21:50

You can read about it, talk about it, ask an expert about it, watch videos about it, Google it...but in the end, there is no substitute for just DOING it.

In other words, skiing is basically the same as playing the violin.

I discovered this last week, when my husband, two kids and I defied the apocalyptic National Weather Reports, packed way too much stuff into our Prius and headed for Mammoth Mountain in the central Sierras of California.


I enrolled in the first-time skiers class, partly to be with hubby Robert, who'd never been on skis, and partly because I thought I'd probably forgotten everything during my 20-year hiatus from skiing. Happily, I still knew how to ski. I felt at ease once I slipped my boots into the skis, and after a morning of technical practice on the bunny slope – snow plow and doing turns – I was ready to hit the green slopes. (Actually the instructor said that only old folks use the term "snow plow;" now the official term for the beginning method of turning your skis tips toward each other is "wedge" for grownup students and "pizza" for kid students)

All the practice I'd logged as a kid, skiing maybe a dozen times, seemed to help me. Not that I could start where I was then, but I did have some feeling for skiing.


Robert and the kids were starting from scratch, and that's a different matter. Skiing involves learning a whole new set of sensations. One simply has to do it repeatedly in order for this kind of activity to take on the feel of something familiar.

Adults are used to negotiating the world and its little tasks with ease, and so committing to something new like this is a major deal. Robert had a great attitude: he was patient, he took the falls like a good sport (though his knee is still in recovery!) and he slowly worked on the techniques of turning, etc. On the second day we took him up the lift and down the slope – a blue slope because of all the powder! It was steep, and not easy. What was remarkable was that at the top of the slope, he was a beginner, with a good deal of trepidation and awkwardness. By the bottom, he was beginning to put it all together, and even surprised himself with a few very natural-feeling turns. Those moments of putting it all together have stayed in his mind; he is determined to get back to it and build on what he learned.

My children also learned a few new sensations. Living in Southern California, they scarcely have seen snow. They had doubts about the need for all this gear: snow pants, long underwear, fleece, gloves, glove liners, socks, sock liners, a face mask, goggles, a helmet. It's approximately same amount of equipment required to walk on the moon.

"You need the right gear," I said firmly, remembering my dad taking me to Colorado's north-facing, windy-cold Loveland Basin in knit gloves. "If you are set up right, it is so, so much easier. If you are cold, it's all you're going to think about."

After some convincing, my daughter traded her fleece gloves for the ski gloves, and the kids headed to their lessons in those impossibly clunky ski boots. In the beginning, they approached their little runs down the tiny beginner hill with the kind of enthusiasm they reserve for eating the rest of their broccoli.

As it is hard for some beginning violin students to draw any connection between drilling Twinkle rhythms and playing music on the violin, I realized that my kids weren't seeing the connection between this rather lame patch of snow and the glorious mountain behind them. As they saw it on their first day, skiing was pretty dull: waiting to go up a tiny hill, making your way around some plastic octopuses, getting in line again. Yawn. But the next day they skied. Each of them rode the big chairlift and skied down a "real" run. Both of them caught on fast, and I think now they understand what it's about.

For me, the challenge came on the big blizzard day, when I decided to go ahead and take the ski lesson that I'd already paid for (no refunds, unless the mountain closes). Though a few friends from our party came along, the rest of my family stayed back at the cabin as I headed into the snowing, blowing, mounting blizzard.

A view, a lot like the one from my goggles.

I started on the "long" bunny slope, which the day before had been almost icy: a place to practice making turns. Today it was covered with powder, and the ski instructor said to just point the skis straight down the hill and go as fast as possible. It was a totally different approach than yesterday.

"You won't ski very often in conditions like today," said one instructor who was working the tow lift. "Use the sensations you get today to make yourself a better skier."

As luck would have it, I had an awesome instructor: Bobby, who also teaches blind skiers how to ski. Only two other people were in the class, and one bowed out after only one of the three runs. I completely trusted my teacher, even as we reached the blustery top of the ski lift. I simply skied in his wake through all that powder and blowing snow. Halfway down one run ("Bridges"), I glanced around at the tall pines, drooping from heavy snow; edged my skies through a powdery turn, felt the majesty of the mountains around me and said to the howling wind, "I LOVE SKIING!"


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A Rose Parade experience

January 2, 2008 01:28

Once again I offer you scenes from the the Rose Parade – not the part at the beginning, by the T.V. cameras, where the floats emerge straight from the package, the band members have an exuberant glow in their faces and a spring in their heels...

No, I offer the unique view that we scrappy folks at the tail end of the five-and-a-half-mile route see. It's more of an experience than a show, and since I'm on the whole “create an experience” kick, here goes.

We emerged from V.com World Headquarters (okay, our condo) in Pasadena around 8 p.m., hoping to catch the B-2 Stealth Bomber, which in previous years has sent our spoons flying as we ate cereal before the parade, while our neighbor Rosie points from her south-facing balcony, “Mother of G... that F....” Okay you know I won't tell you what Rosie says, but it's an expression of awe, fear, amazement, as this black triangle of death sweeps low over our homes. But this year it never came, and it was a source of disappointment among the natives, particularly Paul, here, with his new camera, who waited for the same thing on the roof of his house.

We came back inside, watched the first few floats on T.V., then knew it was time to get going. The beginning of the parade would arrive at our designated area in about an hour and a half. As I left the house, I noticed a message from my sister in Cincinnati, who was watching the parade on T.V.

“We thought we'd try to see you on T.V., where are you?” I chuckled. No, you won't be seeing us on T.V.!

As we walked north, through the middle of the cleared street, lined with people who'd been out there all nights with their sleeping bags, stoves, people who were throwing footballs and shooting silly string, we found ourselves walking past a little band of happy people in orange, chanting, waving their arms, banging a drum.

We found our friends, who had three rows of lawn chairs that various other friends had brought by over the last few days. They've made an art of saving this little patch of sidewalk every year for the parade for some 25 years. The first year she invited me she said, “I'll never invite you again, you're just invited every year, we're always at the same place!” It's becoming an annual pilgrimage.

“We brought a band of Hare Krishnas, they'll be by in just a few minutes here,” I announced as we greeted our friends.

My son produced a $5 bill he had apparently been saving, and he proceeded to spend it (with some parental supplementation) on silly string, cotton candy and noisemakers. The kids ran circles around us, squirting each other's hair, clothing, even faces with silly string.

At last came the Rose cops on motorcycles, circling and doing little tricks, showing us it was time to sit down. I was shooting into the sun for much of this, but here is a bunch of pictures:

Happy New Year!

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Musings from a Musical Mudblood

January 1, 2008 00:44

My parents called to say that they spent the last hours of 2007 watching Live from Lincoln Center, featuring Joshua Bell and the New York Philharmonic, and they just loved it.

I took this as a good sign for 2008.

My parents are what I'd call well-meaning Music Muggles, who for reasons few can explain, gave birth to a musical daughter with a freakish passion for the violin. They enjoy violin music, though they aren't always sure why. Whenever my mom expresses enthusiasm for a classical performance, she tempers it with, "But I wouldn't know; you know I have a tin ear!"

The fact that they spent two full hours glued to a symphony orchestra concert tells me that this performance appealed not only to those of us who already adore the NY Phil, Ravel, Josh Bell, and the violin; but it also appealed to a broader audience.

I was actually explaining this concept to 50 first-grade beginners several weeks ago. As we prepared for what was their very first violin concert, they wondered if they would be playing the piece they learned most recently, which, of course, was not ready for Prime Time.

"Performing is different," I explained. "You have to know what you can do really well, and then you have to use that to give your audience something they will enjoy."

You have to do both things: show what you can do, and use it to create an experience for the audience.

I thought the New Year's concert did this well; and I was reminded of how well Josh Bell does it: showing superb technique, but also lending that technique to the creation of an experience for the audience, not just a showcase for the performer.

I caught the last half of the Live from Lincoln Center performance, arriving at my T.V. set just as Renee Fleming started chatting with Joshua Bell, and I thought they handled the interview quite well, giving insight, but with an audience in mind. If anyone is wondering why Bell has been so successful as a soloist for so many years, you can watch this very short interview for a few clues why: he knows his topic, he can explain it with depth but without condescension; he is sincere. And despite his huge following and lifetime of building violin technique, he is humble about it. "I'm not a gypsy violinist...I'm not a jazz violinist....I could never be a Fritz Kreisler," basically I am what I am, and I hope you like it, he says. She also spoke with Lorin Maazel, and they did a nice job of putting the second half of the program in context, talking about Tzigane being a gypsy piece born of Ravel's best creative impulses, while Bolero was the bane of his existence.

Bell played a really nice Tzigane, geez, where is the wolf on your G, man? Really, it was full of great effect, smooth sound, energy, and yes, movement. I decided that the best way to film Josh involves having a cushion of space around him; that the close-close-ups cause dizziness and nausea in the viewer, for all the camera jerking. Give the man some leeway; it's his prerogative to move. My parents especially loved Intro and Rondo Capriccioso and "Leibesleid," ("But honey, we like the way you play Leibesleid better," my mom said. This, for me, is the tin-ear advantage...;) ) I was sorry to have missed that.

But on to Bolero.

I detest Bolero. I hate playing it. I hate listening to it. I hate having it worm its way into my head. And yet, tonight I watched it from start to finish. I found that T.V. was a good medium for this piece. Though the music and the harmony does not change but once during the entire 15-minute piece, the instrumentation does. So the camera panning from instrument to instrument helped temper the mind-numbing repetition that otherwise drives me totally mad. It's all too easy to doze off into this mesmerizing vapor and start botching notes, entrances, etc., so I enjoyed hearing this piece performed by an orchestra that has more than a passing interest in detail, if not for love of this piece, at least from professional habit. It's not my kind of music, but it was an experience.

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