Since the Turtle Island String Quartet is the only quartet I know anything about, you can imagine my excitement when I found out last fall that they would be playing in Anchorage in March. I wouldn't be missing this concert for the world! But wait, it gets better: The Turtle Island String quartet will be playing in Soldotna, too! Holy cow, in my own town! Who'd have though that could happen? But wait, they're also offering a workshop/master class to boot. This is getting to be almost as amazing as an info-mercial. I mean, how much would you expect to pay for something like this? But wait! BUT WAIT! ...there's more. I received an email this morning requesting me to play for the master class. Me play for them? Is this still planet earth, and am I actually alive and awake? Did I read this right? In all my life, I never even thought something like this could happen to me. And now it scares the boogers out of me.
I know I can't possibly refuse, but in a sense, I would rather hide far away and be safe than to offer my tune as a sacrifice to these musical geniuses. I have a history of anxiety attacks on the stage, and it's something I've worked very hard at overcoming in the past year. Even so, playing for close friends and family can still be difficult at times, and I can't even feel my fingers and my bow arm gets a sudden bout of rigor mortis.
For me, this is the opportunity of my musical career, or so it seems. I'm bound to learn loads from the experience, regardless of the outcome of my performance under scrutiny. I just hope I live through it.
"If you were stranded on a desert island and could only have one thing, what would it be?"
We've all pondered hypothetical situations like those previously mentioned, but how about a more practical scenario? If you could tell your student one thing to think about while practicing this week, what would it be?
I teach piano as well, and my most advanced student is a sweet, ambitious high school foreign exchange student from Switzerland. She signed up for half-hour lessons this year, which proved to be way too short a time span to cover her Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Bartok. To further complicate things, she showed up ten minutes late this week. In the twenty remaining minutes, she wanted to show me her latest efforts on the third movement of the Moonlight sonata. I knew she had practiced nothing else, so I agreed. I listened as the minutes ticked by, knowing that she wouldn't even make it to the finish before the end of the lesson. What concluding remarks could help her for the upcoming week? Correct the C natural in measure 187, watch the staccatos in measures 152-67, practice the octaves in the recapitulation... I didn't have time to say all the things I thought of while she played along, especially with the existing language barriers. If I only had two words for her, and for any other student this week, what would they be?
...is returning to a studio of pure chaos. This week has been one that tries the soul of the violin instructor. I have just spent the entirety of last week driving through several blizzards, ice storms, and animal-infested mountain passes to make it back to my home town in time to begin this semester's lessons. In those six days on the road through Canada, I had plenty of time to think about life in general and the possibility of not having one anymore, as we avoided many near-death experiences, including one involving a herd of puppies and ice--but I won't go into that story. My Honda started making a mysterious groaning sound back in Illinois, which progressed into a shimmy somewhere in the Yukon, but somehow it still managed to roll over 200,000 as we made the last 150-mile haul to Soldotna. I arrived home a changed person, thankful for a bed and heat and food and good friends. Then, I began the phonecalls to round up my students for the week's lessons.
"Can we change all five of my children's lessons to Thursday?"
"We won't be making this week, we're driving to Anchorage."
"My daughter has finals this week, so we won't be coming."
"My mom gets off work an hour later now, so we can't make the 5:00."
"My son isn't inspired to practice anymore. We're quitting."
"We had to move, and he's been so sick, and his grandmother forgot to explain that he broke his thumb, you know, and we're going to cancel while we wait for another miraculous healing."
I lost four students this week. My housesitter didn't sit after all, and left the door open and the lights on. Yes, in Alaska, in December, she left the front door open. And then the piano tuner forgot to tell me that he raised his price from $80 to $125 until I saw it on the bill. This is no exaggeration of the week I've had, not to mention that absolutely no one practiced while I was away. I felt completely steam-rolled. I have written policies explaining that cancellations are not excusable, nor refundable in any of the previously mentioned situations. Can they not understand that I came through with the reliablility of a postal service worker, that neither rain nor snow, nor sleet nor puppies on ice could stop me from being there for them? Pitiful excuses, all of them. I have been frustrated and angry with the flakiness of people in general. How hard is it to keep a commitment?
I've learned a thing or two from this. After being taken aback by the first weekly cancellation and kicking myself for not charging her for it and letting myself be walked on like that, I braced myself. When the third similar phonecall came, I used this valuable phrase that I had memorized and repeated several times in advance: "I'm sorry you can't make it, I'd hate to see you pay and get nothing for it, but if this is what's best for you, then I understand." It was silent and awkward for a moment, and then we closed our conversation. I hung up knowing I'd made my point. It felt tacky and pushy and wonderfully unbudging. Sure enough, I was rewarded the following day when the mother left a message saying that they would be able to make the lesson after all.
Note to self: stand firm more often.
P.S. Write a formal termination policy that sticks it to last-minute quitters.
My first venture into the pit was now fifteen years ago. My, has it really been that long? I still smell the drying paint on the stage props.
Everything about the pit was an adventure. We only had room to squeeze four violinists between the drum set and the piano. Huddled, we managed to move our bows by tilting the angle of our instruments this way and that to avoid eye gauging and sudden hiccups in the phrasing due to collisions with the wall. The dim, yellow stand lights created ambiance, but offered little in the way of lighting. However, this was not an issue, since we were a mere three inches from the large, hand-scrawled manuscript.
We were four young girls up against a Goliath of a brass section, armed with nothing but little wooden sticks. It didn't matter which social circles I kept outside the pit; down below, we violins bonded instantly in order to stay alive.
Hours of rehearsal would pass, yet still we would worry, wondering if it would all come together for opening night. Sometimes it didn't. "Ad-lib" measures could stretch into an entire movement in order to keep the show rolling.
I always admired and envied the stars on the stage, the ones that accepted the ovations and bouqets. Glory is not rewarded to the lowly pit musician. Rather, we were to hide our faces like the Phantom of the Opera, making mysterious noises in anonimity and leaving the audience wondering, "What exactly was that haunting wail in the middle of the interlude?" A violinist can make valiant efforts at multiple key changes and challenging solos without risk, for no one will ever know it was him if he screws it up.
So even though I wished for the attention of the spotlight, at the same time, it terrified me. I preferred to keep myself safely secret, along with my crush on the boy who played the piano so well all those years in the school musical, never once telling a soul, and happy to leave it that way.
That's what I liked most about the pit. A shy girl could participate, unobserved, from the same vantage point as that of a Degas painting, there beneath the lights of the show.
I am now leaving the land of the internet-deficient, on my way back to my home in Alaska. I really have missed being able to check in at V.com and see what's up in the fiddle world. I miss practicing in my studio most of all, and can't wait to get through Canada once more and settle back into my old routine after this holiday whirlwind. I wish I could fill in all the details of life with the relatives and give you a review of my recent concert tour of various churches and living rooms, but perhaps another time.
Currently, I am in Great Falls, Montana, and it's 3:15 am and I have insomnia. Luckily, this motel has free internet access, so I'm making good use of my time. Hope my husband doesn't notice if I take a catnap during my driving shift later today! Only 2400 miles to go...
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