I have started to organize my large collection of CDs which is thoroughly randomized now. It was organized once, but, alas, like an untended garden, it’s a mess. First, I found all my CDs of famous violinists and grouped them together. It takes strong willpower to prevent myself from stopping right there and just listening to them. My next largest group of CDs is the Bach CDs. They’re very close to heaven. I also have a lot of Mozart, Beethoven, and lots more. The folk music CDs were easy to organize. I just did it alphabetically by last name of the performer and group.
I am procrastinating. I have to go to bed early and get up at some ungodly hour of the morning and commute two hours to a job interview. If I had realized how bad the commute is, I wouldn’t have applied for the job. I don’t even have a car. I’ll bring one or two good books and some mp3s for the trip.
Just as the members of the orchestra benefit from the music we make, so do other people. Our audiences enjoy and appreciate us. We are giving back to the community some of our love. Other people benefit in a material sense, too. We give to charities a lot of the money we make by performing.
Playing in an orchestra is very different from playing solo or playing with a few other people in public or in private. In some ways, it’s less fun. Playing the score for a second violin, for example, is nothing like pouring your heart into a beautiful melody. An orchestral score doesn’t sound like much of anything when you play one part by yourself. It takes discipline and technique just to practice it. The real fun of playing in an orchestra is hearing the voices of many instruments come together into something far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s one of the miracles of life that I never tire of. Another thing I love about playing in an orchestra is learning about the music we play from the inside. I am lucky to have an orchestra conductor who is also a very good teacher. When we play a piece I love, I love it even more for the increased understanding of how it works. This understanding does not detract from the wonder of the music. Instead, it enhances it.
Playing in an orchestra can teach us a lot of good life skills, too. Learn how to work together to achieve a goal. Don’t be a prima donna. What’s best for the whole orchestra is more important than what’s best for any one individual. Listen to each other. Respect the leader and learn how to follow him. Help each other learn how to play well. Learn about other people’s roles and instruments, and appreciate what they do. Practice on your own so that you can be a better player in the group.
I once heard a very good country fiddler say, “You don’t get to be a good musician by being a prima donna. You get to be a good musician by sitting on the back porch, playing some, talking some, and playing some more.” So true, even for an orchestra.
Another benefit for me has been the friendships I have formed. I’ve been dealing with chronic unemployment for the last few years. It has been very hard on my ego. One evening I came to rehearsal dressed in a suit instead of my usual casual attire. I had been to a job interview and hadn’t had time to change my clothes. Several people in the orchestra said to me, “Did you have an interview today?” I realized that they were a support group for me. When I got a job, I bought chocolates and gave them out to the members of the orchestra. When I lost my job, one of the orchestra members bought some chocolates for me so that I wouldn’t be, in his words, “too despondent.”
One of the violinists in the orchestra showed me a fortune she got in a Chinese fortune cookie. She likes it so much that she carries it in her wallet. It says, “Talent isn’t talent unless it’s shared.” That could be the motto of the community orchestra.
Alasdair then turned to melody and showed us a few melody ornaments. First were grace notes. Commonly used patterns for grace patterns are one under the main note; the note preceding the main note in the melody; and one, two, or three notes up from the main note. To make things a bit more complex, one can also play up one single (ex., B-A), up one double (ex., B-A-B-A), etc. Other ornaments include turns and slides, although these are used more commonly in Irish music than in Scottish music.
At this point, Alasdair taught us a tune by ear and let us try the things we had learned while playing it. He said that if we had any trouble picking up the tune, as paper trained violinists often do, that’s OK; just play whatever notes seem to you to fit. I learned the A part of the tune easily enough but the B part eluded me. I am, after all, one of those paper driven players. However, I took his advice. Since the tune was in the key of D, I just noodled around in the key of D or played notes from the D chord in the same rhythm as the melody. It worked fine, and it helped me stay relaxed about what I could not do. When we had learned the tune, Alasdair divided the circle of players in half again. One half played melody while the other half played rhythm and then we switched. It sounded really good and it showed how well the fiddle can perform as a rhythm instrument.
“Learning music is a lot like learning language,” Alasdair told us. He said that he had studied French in high school and it was a complete waste of his time. He just didn’t learn well by memorizing vocabulary and grammar. He said that he would have learned a lot more if he had gone to France and picked grapes for a summer. He told us that a country’s traditional music is similar in sound to its traditional language. He illustrated his point by speaking a few words in Scots Gaelic. In a departure from his heretofore jovial manner, he spoke with sadness about what the English had done about the English language as spoken by Scotsmen. With mass media came a standardization of the spoken English. Up until about 15 years ago, there were no radio announcers in Scotland who spoke English with a Scottish accent. He also deplored what the English had done to Highland bagpipe playing. For centuries, the English had banned the playing of the pipes in an effort to separate the Scottish people from their own heritage and make them loyal to England. (It didn’t work.) When the English decided that they needed Scotsmen, notorious warriors, to fight in England’s wars, they condoned the playing of pipes in their traditional role of revving soldiers up and getting them into battle. However, the English added their own touch to piping. They standardized it. All pipers played the same grace notes, etc. at the same time. The custom is still in effect today. In pipe band competitions, for example, one criterion of success is having the band sound like one piper amplified.
Alasdair gave an interesting perspective on the standardization of the pitch of A, which is now set at 440 Hz (cycles/sec) It has been creeping up in pitch for a few hundred years. The A used in the seventeenth century was close to the G# used today. The trend continues to this day, as some orchestras are using 442 Hz for A. Alasdair said that as the frequency increases, so does the volume, but the quality of tone decreases.
How could three hours have passed so quickly? I had so much fun. I know I’ll continue having fun playing with all the things I learned at the workshop.
Recently I attended a workshop given by Alasdair Fraser, one of the world’s greatest Scottish fiddlers. I had listened to his recordings, live performances, and talks about Scottish fiddle music, so I thought the workshop would be good. It was great!
Alasdair started by asking each of us why we had come. This is a common ritual for starting workshops, and, usually, it’s pretty trite. This time was different. People spoke from the heart about their love for fiddle music, and Alasdair interjected his own heartfelt comments. There were twenty-five people and a wide variety of answers. Several people said that they had played the violin through high school and then put it aside for college and other activities. Now they were returning to play music they loved listening to. Some people said that they had never played Scottish fiddle music and they wanted to try it. Several people, including me, said that they had been playing with a local Scottish fiddle club for years and wanted to learn more about the things that make Scottish music Scottish. One fellow, about 12 years old, played classical violin and jazz piano. A girl who was just a little younger said that she has been playing Scottish fiddle music for a few years and had made it to the national level in competition. I noticed that the hairs on her bow had been dyed purple, but her hair had not. Someone said, “Music is what I live for.” One honest man said that he came because his teacher told him to. His teacher was there and agreed. We all agreed that the woman who had driven here from South Carolina, a few hundred miles away, should get some sort of prize.
Alasdair explained, in his view, the main difference between playing classical violin music and playing Scottish fiddle music. He said that in playing classical music, the goal is to figure out how the composer wanted the music to sound and play it that way. The goal in playing Scottish fiddle music, in his view, is to find the voice within yourself and let it play, contributing from yourself to the tradition of the music. (I don’t agree with him about classical music. In fact, Hilary Hahn has written something like what he said about playing Scottish fiddle music, but she was writing about playing Bach.)
Alasdair went on to say that Scottish fiddle music is essentially an aural tradition. He said that many classically trained violinists are excessively “paper trained” and need to learn to play by ear. There was a lot of embarrassed laughter and agreement among the participants. He also told us that we had to break the learned habit of being “down bow driven.” In Scottish fiddle music, and even more in Irish fiddle music, the first beat of a measure, while emphasized, is frequently played up bow. This gives a swinging feeling to the music. He also told us not to ask questions like “Where do I play the grace notes?” I didn’t say that I have asked that very question of friends. They always told me, as Alasdair did, “Wherever you feel like.” Such is improvisation.
His next major point was the importance of rhythm. He encouraged us to think of the fiddle as a rhythm instrument. He suggested getting a cheap electric keyboard instrument, setting it to play some funky rhythm, and playing along. One result, he remarked, is that your family will believe that you have gone mad. Then he played some rhythm games with us. He would play a rhythm pattern, using the open A and D strings in double stops, and we would play it back to him. The first rhythms he played were easy and included 1-2-3-4 and 1-2-3-4-5-6. Next we played 1-2-3-4 but with 1 and 3 up bow. Then he tried something harder, and the first one to catch on was the boy who played jazz piano. It was 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. Next he gave us 1-2-3-4-5-6-1-2-3-4-5-6. We did this easily, so he divided the circle of players in half and had one half start with 1-2-3-4-5-6 and the other half with 1-2-3-4-5-6. This was fun. It reminded me of an exercise my orchestra conductor had us play to help us with one of the variations in Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn. He divided the string players into two groups and had one group play 1-2-3-4-5-6 and the other group play 1-2-3-4-5-6, using any notes from an F chord. He really impressed me by tapping one rhythm with his right hand and the other with his left hand simultaneously.
Alasdair emphasized the importance of rhythm when playing for Scottish dance, focusing on the strathspey, a traditional Scottish dance form for which there are some great tunes. He told us that the dance has gliding, horizontal movements, not jumping up and down movements, which he called “boing boing.” He told us that our bows should follow or guide the dancers’ feet. He tried to demonstrate his point by dancing but admitted the obvious: he’s not a very good dancer. He asked whether any of the workshop participants could do Scottish dance. One woman did and gave us a beautiful demo. She kicked off her sneakers and danced in her stocking feet while Alasdair played fiddle. Her dancing was both very graceful and very athletic. She was up on the balls of her feet for a good part of the time, and her feet were often positioned as in ballet. Seeing her dance while Alasdair played was a wonderful bonus to the workshop.
Next Alasdair had us improvise some rhythm. He played a complex rhythm, still with double stops on the open A and D strings. He would point to someone and that person would have to play something in the gaps between his notes and keep doing it while Alasdair pointed to another person. Pretty soon we were all playing our own rhythm improvisations, and the room rocked.
Since the workshop, I’ve played some of these rhythm games with a few of my students, and they have all had a lot of fun with them.
To be continued
My adult beginners tend to get more frustrated than my kid beginners. That’s because they’ve heard enough music to be aware of how bad they sound at first. Actually, they don’t sound that bad. You don’t have to put your hands over your ears and duck for cover when they play. It’s just that moving the bow smoothly and steadily across the strings is a lot harder than it looks. I have to reassure them that this is tough for beginners and that it will get easier with practice. They all tell me that they’re excited about playing the violin, and I want them to continue to feel that way.
Some of my kid students are doing really well. At a certain point, everything they’ve been struggling with comes together and – bingo – they sound really good. Now I have to work hard to find new pieces and exercises for them, always trying to balance challenges and instant fun.
I always feel sad when a student leaves. I’ve had a couple of boys, ages seven to ten, quit. They have talent and learn quickly, but they don’t see the value incontinuing. They have other classes and other extracurricular activities that they’d rather spend their time on. I really miss one particular fellow whom I’ve taught for about a year and a half. He’s smart, talented, and a nice, good natured kid. I got to know his family and I like them and miss them, too. I don’t have any family of my own, and that makes me more sensitive to other people’s families. One of my adult beginners is leaving, too. He got an offer for a job in California that he couldn’t refuse. He wasn’t even looking for a job. The job found him. He had no training in music before he started taking lessons with me. He had traveled in Ireland and fell in love with Irish fiddle music. As soon as he started to play, he sounded great. He has a lot of talent and he loves playing. He only studied with me for about three months, so he has only begun. He intends to take lessons in California, and I was able to get him a recommendation for a good Irish fiddle teacher near his new home.
The beat goes on.
I don’t know whether I was awake, asleep, or in some state in between when it happened. I had an awful dream or vision. I was in a room watching as someone draped a veil around a corpse, which still looked alive, and put it into a coffin. It was the body of my late, lamented lover. His brother was there, standing just behind me. I was crying vehemently, making a flood of tears. All the while, I kept saying, “I love you. I love you with all my heart.”
I woke up a short time later, when the alarm went off, feeling like hell. I had a strong drive to get out of the house though, so I took some Pepto Bismol and waited for it to take effect. Then I got out, got on the bus, and read the book I had brought for the 45 minute trip. When the bus got close to the church, I thought, “I just want to get into church, listen to the music, and cry.” The music did it for me. It took me out of myself and let me focus on something outside of me. The music was made by a children’s steel drum orchestra. The youngest, about 10 years old, did an incredible solo. When the kids played, they had that intense, rapt look on their faces, the look I see so often on my own students. After the service I talked to the kids and then to various friends in the congregation. I went out with a new friend I like very much to a Chinese restaurant for dim sum, and we both pigged out.
When I got home, I felt the cold shroud of darkness approach me again. I thought that if I wrote about my devils, I might be able to exorcise them. As I wrote this and described my fear, I felt it grow inside me. When I wrote about music and friends, I felt as though I were seeing daylight again. One of my students will be here soon, and another one after her, so my devils will stay away. They only come after me while I’m alone. Tonight, again, the forces of Darkness and of Light will fight over me. Sometimes I think it’s a battle that never ends.
Under the influence of some of my friends on violinist.com, I’ve been getting and listening to CDs of virtuoso violinists, particularly legendary violinists of the past. I’m listening to them on my new portable CD player because the quality of sound is so good. In fact, since I bought this player, I’ve hardly listened to music any other way. I walk around my home with my headphones on and carrying the player. I feel like a like a fetus attached to its mother by a placenta or an astronaut attached to a spacecraft by a cable. I’m happily surrounded now by piles of CDs. I just finished listening to Masters of the Strings, which is absolutely astounding. The two CDs of this set are remastered from old recordings, and the quality of sound of the orchestras is not always very good. Fortunately, the violin parts sound wonderful. First is Menuhin playing the Paganini Concerto #1. I think this is the most exciting performance on this CD set. I started listening to it a while before I had to leave home to meet some friends, and I almost didn’t keep my appointment because I couldn’t bear to stop listening. Menuhin’s cadenzas just blew me away. I know they’re very, very difficult but they seem to flow out from his violin effortlessly. I kept shaking my head and muttering, “Wow!” Every time he did a few quick notes pizz in the middle of some astounding bowing, I laughed out loud in amazement. Absolutely brilliant fireworks! Next is Kreisler playing the Beethoven Concerto. I don’t think I’ve heard recordings of Kreisler before, and this one was a revelation of beauty. Following that is David Oistrakh playing the Dvorak concerto. His playing is so warm and brilliant that I could almost see the music. The last piece on the second CD is the Tchaik Concerto played by Nathan Milstein. It reminded me again that Milstein is one of my heroes. It was difficult to resist the temptation to listen to these CDs again and again, but I have other CDs to listen to. When I finish, or sooner if I feel like it, I’ll go back to these two CDs and listen to them over and over.
I also bought a 4 CD set of music by Brahms, called “Brahms, A Portrait.”. I bought these and Masters of the Strings on ebay, so I haven’t gone bankrupt yet. Not every piece on the Brahms CDs features a solo violin, but I’m listening and enjoying them anyway. I just finished listening to Brahms’s German Requiem. I remembered it as a “big” piece, but when I listened to it, it didn’t sound big in the sense of heavy, but rather full and rich. The female vocal soloist is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and her voice is rich and beautiful. The second CD has Brahms’s Symphonies #2 and #3, with Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony, respectively. The third CD has Brahms’s Piano Concerto #2, with Horowitz as the soloist, and the Violin Concerto with Menuhin as the soloist. I’m overcome by riches at this point, but there is one more CD in this set. It has the Quartet #1 with Artur Rubinstein and members of the Pro Arte String Quartet and the Sonata #2 for cello and piano with Casals and Horszowski. Wow! I feel like I’m almost blinded by all these stars.
Next is a 5 CD set called “The Art of Ruggiero Ricci” with another mind boggling lineup. Disc #1: Concerti by Bruch, Goldmark, and Sibelius. Disc #2: Brahms Double and concert fantasies by Wienawski, Sarasate, Ernst, and Paganini. Disc #3: Violin Concerto and other pieces by Lalo. Disc #4: Ysaye’s Sonatas, Sarasate’s Ziegeunerweisen, and works by Sinding and Novacek. Disc #5: Bach’s Sonata #2, works by Hindemith and Paganini, and various virtuoso encores.
I feel like I’m going to pig out on virtuosity.
On the level of mere mortals, I heard a concert by champion Irish fiddler Martin Hayes with guitarist Dennis Cahill earlier this week, and tomorrow I’m going to a workshop by Alasdair Fraser, one of the greatest living Scottish fiddlers. I’m really excited about Alasdair’s (that’s the name he goes by) workshop. I’ve heard him play both live and on CD, and I’ve heard him talk about Scottish fiddling. Just hearing him talk opened new doors for me. I’m excited about the workshop.
Now I’ll go and play some Scottish fiddle music in preparation for tomorrow.
Someone I know recently wrote on the subject “Music We Lived Our Lives By” and invited others to do the same. The subject is not music we love and have listened to many times, but rather music that has guided our lives. Here is what I wrote:
I've always loved music and regretted that I can't sing. When I was about 10, I started learning to play the violin. I remember distinctly, one night when I was 10 or 12, listening to my clock radio, which my mother had gotten for me with green stamps, and hearing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. I knew then that I had a voice to sing with, and it was my violin.
I came of age in the 60s, and I lived my life, then and now, with the songs and singers of that era: PPM, Dylan, Joan Baez, Beatles, Motown, ant-war songs, and especially important, Eyes on the Prize and We Shall Overcome.
Eight Days A Week. In high school, we said that this song was about homework.
War March of the Priests and Pomp and Circumstance were played at my high school graduation, and I still get excited every time I hear them.
Sunrise Theme from Also Sprach Zarathustra was played at my graduation from graduate school. Appropriately, it was also used at the time as the background music for a Tums commercial.
Eyes on the Prize has continued to help me through hard times which last for months or years.
When I was going through my divorce, I used to play Billy Joel's My Life over and over, jumping up and down and screaming to vent my frustration and anger until I wore myself out.
At the end of my marriage, after it was too late, we had some counseling. The therapist liked to ask probing questions. One time she asked me, "What do you really want?" I leaned forward, snapped my fingers, and said, "All I want is a little respect." I've had the same thought in many situations since then.
Again, during my divorce, when something happened that made me feel absolutely devastated, I went out with some friends to hear John McCutcheon. For the first time, I heard him sing Gone Gonna Rise Again, and I knew I was going to make it. It's true that a song can save your mortal soul.
One line in Lay, Lady Lay is, "I want to see you in the morning light." Need I say more?
"Drifting Too Far from the Shore" makes me ask myself, "What is the shore for me?" (It's not Jesus.)
One night as I was cooking dinner and listening to Paul Simon's "Train in the Distance," I heard him sing, "The hope that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains," and I stopped dead in my tracks. That line has helped me so much since then.
Monday I have an interview for a different job. I’ll do some studying on Sunday so that I can talk intelligently about the work they want me to do.
I’m glad I have a few students to teach this weekend. That is so much more fun.
Time to get some sleep. I won’t procrastinate about that.
Actually, I had an additional and more positive reason for not cancelling my lessons today. I knew I'd feel better after teaching. I always do, and I did today. My first lesson went well largely because of a new beginner book I just bought, "Fiddle Magic. 180 Technical Exercises for the Violin," by Sally O'Reilly. It's a fun book, and my students react to the exercises as if they're playing games. Each exercise is only one or two lines long, and they can each be repeated on different strings. A lot of them teach coordination or independence of different movements, something like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Most of my students have a hard time when they first encounter slurs, but they love to play the slur exercises. You start with a simple pattern of notes (wannabe scales), like A-B-C#-D-D-C#-B-A on the A string. First you play each note with a separate bow stroke, then slur two notes, and then four notes. Another one for practicing bowing is played with open strings only, but with a single string, then a double stop, then a single string, etc. One little girl thought this was very funny because, when she first started to play, she'd often play two strings at once by mistake. For string crossings, you simply play the four open strings in sequence (G-D-A-E-E-A-D-G), first with separate bows, then with four notes slurred. One exercise is called "shivering," and consists mainly of the pattern A-B-A-B-A-B-A played quickly. This one has the advantage that it looks complicated in writing, with so many tails on the notes. This book is one small step on the long and winding road to the Kreutzer etudes, Galamian scales, and others.
My second student made me happy in a different way. Suddenly, he's got it! It's like the time at which a bunch of motor skills work and you can finally ride a bicycle. Suddenly, things he had struggled to do were just working. He sounded really good. I wish I could say that this happened because he practiced hard. On the contrary, he was sick with a fever and didn't practice for almost a week. I hope he retains his new found skills. I've started gathering more difficult pieces for him to learn. I'll be so happy when he learns to play some of the little pieces from Anna Magdalena Book. Playing those was one of the joys of my own childhood.
Maybe good experiences like these will help me recover from my illness more quickly.