After filling to the gills with over forty excellent varieties of sushi and sashimi at Todai's all-you-can-eat sushi bar, my friends and I strolled on the downtown streets to boost our digestion. We were also curious about the types of people that would be performing on the streets that night.
I hope it was a slow evening. The amount of talent I saw was pretty low: a few portrait painters, several frozen mimes, an unsightly bikini-clad palm reader, some break dancers with great spins and no rhythm... The act I got the most kicks from was a mismatched duo consisting of a man playing soprano sax and a silver painted drummer, complete with duct tape pants. They made several attempts at A-Train, never once making it past the first eight bars. I wish I could have heard what the sax player was saying between efforts. All I could hear was the count to four with the drumsticks, followed by a wide variety of tempos and rhythms, none of which remotely resembled A-Train. The dozen or so variations that I witnessed had me clutching my gut with glee. I wondered if this was their actual ploy that they used to get tips just because people would feel sorry for them. I almost gave them a buck.
Down a ways further, we found what we were looking for: a large toothless Samoan and his equally large buddy, both wearing Santa hats and sarongs, singing traditional Hawaiian folk tunes and strumming on the guitar and ukulele. They sang in casual bellows, using mostly vowels and trailing the phrases into the dirt. The guitars had a seasoned, fixed, easy groove that conveyed a feeling that they had always been there, singing their songs, and didn't mind at all if they stayed until dawn. I watched them for quite a while in admiration. How do you sing with no teeth, anyway?
The good life has taken a slight toll on my practice routine. This evening, while the rest of the gang settled in for football, and rain settled in for the night, I retreated to the guest room and made an attempt at practicing.
After changing out the stale strings and washing the sticky off my hands three times, I spent the next two hours tuning and retuning as I constructed scales and arpeggios. I couldn't find the notes. Rather, I knew where they were--where they needed to be--but I just couldn't get there. I never really made it into anything else. Sometimes, I wonder if I'll be sticking to scales and etudes the rest of my days.
The window was open; the sounds from the street below mixed with the rain-scented air and wafted up through the screen. Across the street, a fellow musician joined me as I played, strumming chords on the ukulele. During the rests, a little yellow gecko chirped from behind the bookshelf, as though requesting an encore. And so it went, up and down the scales in the balmy upstairs guest room, accompanied by anonymous ukulele plunking and happy gecko interludes. Perhaps the three of us might make a good trio, busking on the street corners in Waikiki. Now, there's an idea.
Oh yeah, I'm in Hawaii until December 15th. The violin is here, too, but I can't find a swimsuit that fits it, so it may just stay in its case a bit more than usual.
This is the warmest and most humid weather I've seen since Bangkok, over seven years ago, and I don't quite know what to make of it. I chucked my turtleneck in the sea and danced bare-legged in the wet sand.
Sending a postcard soon, aloha!
The magic coatrack is real.
Naturally, what followed the amazing bow sound would be the discovery of intonation. I haven't made such a breakthough discovery since the magical dawning of vibrato one day in junior high.
I found the gooey centers of my notes. All of them. When you find this certain specific sound, you know you have it. And when you're not on it, it's obvious. It's so obvious, I feel like I'm playing the piano now, where all the notes lie in the black and white keys, right and wrong, with no in between.
It's the sound! I'd been missing it my whole life and searching in vain for two years now. Two years I've been tortured by this hunch that I was missing something and couldn't quite get it there, no matter how hard I tried.
Okay, this was probably happening before, but it was spotty and uncontrolled, and when the sound was good, I couldn't quite put my finger on what caused it.
My apologies for the shoddy description. I simply cannot write now. All I want to do is play. I'm more excited about this than Hawaii. It's the sound! When you have it, you can whirl it into a ball of energy and bellow into the rafters. Or you can direct a whisper across a stadium. A touch of vibrato, and it sings like a diva.
I have years of practice to get this all together, but I'm so encouraged by this monolithic "aha!"
I was puttering around with notes, and lo and behold, I found a magic coatrack to hang them on. Now, if I put everything where it all belongs, I’ll always know where to find them.
I don't usually make public announcements concerning my personal progress on the violin. It probably strikes most people as boring, and quite honestly, most progressions in my studies are minute and gradual. However, tonight I need to proclaim a discovery that to me is about as amazing as a lunar module landing.
Eureka, I discovered... detache!
Wait, no. I discovered... how to make a straight bow stroke.
This isn't as glorious sounding as I wanted it to be. Really, words can't do justice to the thing that came out of my violin. It had something to do with a long focused effort with a perfectly straight bow in the upper half, even relaxed bow pressure, and just the right sounding point. I started slowly and spent an hour or two on a scale.
As I moved that bow back and forth, an amazing sound began to emit from my violin. The precisely placed pitches caught the neighboring strings and provoked them into a collaborated rejoicing. Back and forth went the bow, and the sound billowed and rolled like a gong. Like bells resounding. Like a perfectly rubbed crystal wine glass. It glowed and rang until my ears hurt. Up and down the scale I went for hours, unable to let go of this glorious sound that opened my violin up like cleansed sinuses.
How can I play any other way after today? How can I allow another dull, unfinished note to stand in any of my pieces? I'm spoiled for good. I will just have to go back through my entire repertoire and work this sound into everything.
Glory, my ears are still ringing.
Did I mention I’m also a page turner? It’s a handy skill to possess. I chanced upon regular job offers here after our town’s recent page turning monarch gladly retired from her post and began enticing me with free concert tickets in return for my services. I’m a professional page turner; I am only paid in coffee punch cards, but to me, those are worth more than gold some days.
On the stage, page turning has its own set of stress and anxiety. It’s not as simple as you might think. Every time I take the stage along with the other musicians, I am fully aware of the fact that although I personally haven’t had to log a single minute of rehearsal, I have the power to completely botch the program despite all the hours of practicing and years of experience the others have invested. During the few minutes leading up to the event, I always wonder why I agreed to such a risky task.
My first job, a couple of years ago, was to turn pages for a German pianist playing a Beethoven trio. He showed me the marked pages of his sheet music beforehand and explained that the trio movement would have several repeats, some extending backward by more than one page, followed by a D.C. in which I would return to the beginning and follow through to the sign, then flip forward two pages to the coda, ignoring all second repeats. Got it. As I sat beside this great artist, listening to the measures fly by, I became filled with terror. I can’t see all the notes! My fingers are too dry to grip the corner! Am I sitting too close? Did he just shake his head at me? I can’t remember how to count, where are we? I can’t focus anymore! I envied the members of the trio, who all seemed to be so relaxed and natural on the stage, fully enjoying themselves. The trio movement was next. At the speed of light, the measures ticked away, much faster than I could mentally digest. I flipped. I flipped. I licked and flipped back two. Forward. Forward. Then back to the beginning. Suddenly, I heard an awkward silence. Was that a bright light, and am I dead and on my way to heaven now? At least I could relax then, if I was dead. No, the people in the audience were still there, patiently waiting for what would come next. Obviously, I must have done something wrong. Then the violinist chuckled. It was he, not I, who had forgotten to take the repeat! Each of them shook their heads and smiled, and I resumed breathing in relief. The audience, fully entertained, gave a happy murmur as the musicians rejoined back at the top to complete Beethoven’s trio.
Mistakes aren’t the end of the world, after all. As a page turner, the worst thing I’ve done so far provoked a pianist to whisper at me, following the first movement, “Please do not chew your gum.” I swallowed and wished to be as small as possible for the rest of the evening. Even so, the concert was a success and everyone went home pleased. At least, I’d like to imagine that no one was going to remember that concert as the “Annoying Gum-Smacking Page Turner” concert–no one but me and the whispering pianist.
Tonight, I wasn’t feeling up to snuff. I migrate toward antisocial moods sometimes, and not only am I inclined to stay home, but I also tend to view any audience as a formidable source of anxiety. I’m not sure where all the confidence goes some days. I did not want to face an audience today. Maria’s entrustment of her piano performance to my skills would be my only source of encouragement.
I sat, listening to the first piece performed by the woodwind quintet, a Renaissance-style suite by Milhaud. The Poulenc piano sextet was next. My sanity hung by a thread. How would I keep it together for 68 pages of yet-unheard Poulenc? I was up. Wearing solid black and slinking into the seat on the far left like a shadow, I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. Maria’s fingers hovered, poised over the keyboard. I licked my finger. We were off! They lapped up page number one in a heartbeat, since Maria’s music contained only two lines (the rest of the page otherwise occupied by the score). The music itself was appropriately terrifying–dissonant, busy, and anxious. I hushed the crazy thoughts in my mind by counting to four, to four, to five, and then four again. Turn. The entire first movement passed this way, in a blur.
If the first movement was appropriately anxious, the second proved itself to be even better suited to my mood. Catching me completely off guard, the melancholy introduction from the piano instantly squeezed at a thorn lodged somewhere in my heart and I felt an incredible surge of emotion. The beauty moved me, and I forgot for an instant that I was on a stage and had a job to execute. The music! So beautiful and perfect, it transported me into my personal attic of boxed up feelings and lay open a deep stash of tears. I felt it coming and gasped. Must focus! Two, three, four, turn page 38.
That’s the most difficult thing about being a page turner. I get swept away by the music. I feel excited, serious, frightful, enamored, tearful–everything that music is supposed to make you feel–right then when I’m supposed to be working. The musicians are interacting with the music, the audience is experiencing it, but I am to count and turn, and that’s all. No time for heartbreaks tonight.
Intermission followed Poulenc, and I spied Maria’s husband on the front row. I approached him. “So, was I less conspicuous this evening?” Shaking his head, he replied, “Emily, you are–never–inconspicuous.” He and others claim I’m the most entertaining one to watch on the stage. Seeing as how my chief goal is to be the opposite, I resent that. At the same time, I wonder what they all see up there. Yeah, I bet it’s entertaining.
Wait, that's not clouds darkening the sky. No, that would be the sun setting. Drat daylight savings. Where are they saving it and why?
In my most vibrant musical dreams, I never play sharp or flat. Never. Such dreams come at a price, though: two circles–-one under each eye.
More entries: December 2005 October 2005
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