December 2011

Forever Yours

December 27, 2011 20:05

It's interesting, all the fiery darts your mind will throw at you when something bad happens. At first I was sure that my bow broke because I had been greedy about wanting another violin. Then I thought maybe I'd been prideful about my possessions, so I deserved it. And then it occurred to me that my bow must have been jealous about my affair with the Kittel, and had jumped out of my fingers out of pure spite. Silly Emily, accidents happen because accidents happen, and there's no need to find a reason, other than cold dry fingers, unforgiving concrete, and the fragile nature of bows.

I pulled myself together and called George, but as soon as I began to tell him what I'd done, I began to sob again. It took another fifteen minutes, sitting in the car, before I was able to drive. While I waited, I called Matt Wyatt and left a pretty pathetic, unintelligible message on the violin shop's machine. Then I called Karen Rile and talked with her until I felt a little better. Somehow, it really helps to have someone with seasoned moral support on the other end of the line. She gave me Elizabeth Shaak's phone number at Mount Airy Bows; she might make it all better.

Since I was going back to Fred Oster's anyway, my accident couldn't have had better timing. It made my decision to return the violins an easy one, and furthermore, I was heading to the perfect place to locate an authority for a proper estimate/repair. At the shop, they looked the damage over and quickly assured me that not only could it be splined, but I wouldn't be able to tell the difference at all. Unfortunately, Fred's bow person, Erin, was out of town. Hesitantly, I mentioned Elizabeth Shaak, not sure whether it was kosher to bring up another shop. "Oh,yes, you could take it to her!" he agreed. "Erin actually lives upstairs from her."

The repair would amount to less than the insurance deductible, but I could possibly file a claim and have the bow totaled. That is, if I had insurance, which I didn't. (I know I should, but I hadn't gotten over how bad the last insurance company was.) I knew the risk I'd taken; I was fine with that. Mostly. I have to admit, I drowned my sorrow quite impressively after we left Fred Oster's, first with a black-and-white cookie at the Reading Terminal Market, then with an Italian style hoagie at Sarcone's deli, and then with a visit to Isgro's pastry shop for a sfogliatelle and cannoli. (I'll just deduct that in next week's New Year's Resolution...)

(Puffy-eyed me, going for a cookie. Taken from George's cell phone. I finally found my camera under the seat of the car on the way home.)

A steady drizzle became heavier as we fought traffic over to Mount Airy Bows to leave the Nurnberger with Elizabeth. After reviewing the damage, she decided to spline it and came up with a modest estimate. If all goes as planned, she will be sending it off to me in Oklahoma next week, just as good as new, minus the value.

On my way home, Matt Wyatt called from his holiday in Arizona to check on me and offer his condolences. I told him how embarrassed and guilty I felt for wrecking such a beautiful bow. "Don't feel bad, it can happen to anyone. I broke one the same way when I was in college--a Voirin, actually. It was a morning gig, gym floor, I was tired... It was only two feet, too. I watched it happening in slow motion."

Like the others, he promised it would play just like it played before, and I could still get many happy years out of it. Granted, it's value now equals that of the frog's--about $500. But I could just pretend that I planned on taking it to my grave anyway, so its price tag didn't really matter. I mean, how many cherished possessions do you assign a monetary value? Your dog? Your husband? Your wedding ring? How does the saying go?

...To have and to hold, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do we part.

8 replies

Lost Love

December 27, 2011 13:26

I left Fred Oster's, not with a Kittel, but with an interesting 18th century Klotz violin that fell in the right price range. Curious about how it would fit in, I brought it home for a date. All the relatives gathered round that evening, excited to be able to experience the sound of something so old. Even better, my nine-year-old nephew drew out his own violin and played Christmas carols with me while his mom and grandma worked in the kitchen. We sounded pretty! Christmas Sunday, we played our carols in front of the warm and friendly church congregation for a touching finale to the morning service. Cousin Chrissy accompanied on the piano.

Christmas day came and went. I only had one day left to make up my mind between the Flemish, the Klotz, or no violin at all. I'd been practicing upstairs in the crowded farmhouse, and could hear their personalities waking up, but I still needed one more test. Grabbing the keys to the church, I headed into town to see how they would sound in a larger room.

The building lay empty and cold. Feeling for the light switches, I brightened the room and unzipped each case carefully. First the Klotz. After a couple of notes, I went with my gut and decided I'd do better to save my money. Then the Flemish. I knew I'd said no to it already, but it had grown on me over the past couple of days. As I tightened the strings and reached for the fine tuner, my left hand bumped the tip of the bow. My normally supple and light-gripped right hand was cold and stiff, and in a flash, the Nurnberger slipped from my fingers and bounced lightly, with a thin clatter, on the concrete floor. Bow hair sprawled, the tip lay fractured from the stick, irrevocably.

"No!" The shock made my mind float out of my body, and the room began to narrow. "No! No! No!" Surely, I was having a nightmare: this happens only in nightmares. For about five minutes, I couldn't even process it. And then, like a girl over a lost puppy, I crumpled on the floor over my open case and bawled.

16 replies

Visions of Sugarplums

December 25, 2011 09:58

I set my watch alarm for 6:30 am, half an hour before I wanted to hit the road for Philadelphia. Usually, my musical lifestyle permits me to live without an alarm clock, so every time I know I need to be up at a certain time, I get so wound up at the thought of oversleeping that I toss and turn and rarely sleep more than half an hour at a time without flinching my wrist to my face in alarm. This time, I didn't even bother to hit the covers, but lay on the couch like a fully clothed two-by-four. At 5:45, I finally dozed off, only to shoot straight up with a start at the sudden awareness of broken sunlight. 7:34, holy cow, I slept in! Rounding up two instruments, some coffee, and my GPS, I threw myself into the car, somehow managing to fix my hair and make-up at 80mph on I-80. (I shouldn't admit these things publicly because it creates the notion that perhaps I'm irresponsible and reckless, but let's pretend it was skillful and edgy-cool instead.)

Only two minutes late to Karen Rile's home, I still had time for a hello from the jumping dog and a drink of water before loading our instruments up for Fred Oster's. Caeli needed to pick up her bow from a repair and get her sound post adjusted, and I was looking forward to catching up with the two as they navigated through the suburbs into downtown Philadelphia. Conversation topics bounced rapidly back and forth, like a stream over cobblestones, by large fieldstone bridges and fieldstone houses. Squeezing into half a parking spot, we managed to arrive just in time for our appointment.

Any shop with an iron gate and a doorbell automatically gives me the impression that I might be in the wrong place, and the assistants inside might actually be dobermans, and my best response should be to avoid eye contact and back away slowly with a calm, quiet voice. It was difficult for me to override my instincts and speak with assurance. Luckily, the assistants were not in fact dobermans, and their black turtlenecks matched the one I'd slept in.

Caeli's appointment came first, but unfortunately, her bridge had a slight twist and would need to be straightened before they could complete the adjustment, so she tucked her fiddle away and helped me summon assistance for my instrument audition.

Just when I thought I might have to resign myself to awkward thumb twiddling, Fred Oster himself came to the rescue with a cordial introduction and a quick list of specific questions that led him to his first selection of instruments for me to try. My fingers were cold and rusty, and I had to block out a lot of static to focus on meeting and greeting each instrument properly, but after a couple of rounds, it wasn't all that difficult to select my favorite. Caeli obliged me by playing them through so I could listen to the sound from across the room; I'm so lucky she was there to help me with that.

After a few minutes, he returned. Using my favorite pick, he chose a second set of violins along the same color scheme, and as I described my favorites, he adjusted his selections accordingly. I got to try Italians, Germans, French, both old and modern. My favorite, still, was that first Italian; I took its name and price tag for future reference.

Fred didn't stop, though. He kept bringing more and more instruments. The table and chairs began to fill until I was swimming in fiddles. He reminded me of my color pencil sessions, grabbing and sampling and assembling a palette of colors, which scattered all over the desk. Then he really began to talk, about their personalities, various string combinations, and proper bow selections. I showed him my Nurnberger, and as he looked it over, I felt distinctly like I was being interviewed on an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Karen informed me that he actually does participate in the show, giving appraisals for all kinds of lost and found treasures and trash heaps of the stringed world. For a second, I was nervous about what he would discover, but his excitement put me at ease: "It's a nice bow!" He concluded its value to be $500-$1000 more than what I paid for it.

I then showed him the Flemish and asked about its neck. I watched him look it over with intrigue and pleasure. There might be question as to whether it had its original scroll, he informed me, but the original assessment that it was 1720's Flemish was most likely correct. It had several cracks in the front, but was in otherwise fine condition, and quite a charming instrument. I told him about the perplexing issue I'd had with the strings. "Pirazzi strings exert a good amount of pressure on the body of the violin and actually choke out an old instrument's true sound," he explained. "When you changed out the Pirazzi's for lower tension strings, it is going to have to go through an adjusting time while it opens back up. It could take a couple of days for the sound to come back." Curiously, I wondered if that explained why the magical sound I'd remembered from my first experience with the Flemish was fleeting. Is it possible that I might need to give it more time?

He began to bring out the bows. I played some fine French bows, which he tried to convince me of their superiority to my Nurnberger. Okay, one or two of them were definitely worth toying around with...

And then, behold, he introduced me to my first Kittel: prince charming had just entered the ball room. I almost refused to touch it; at $70,000, he was way out of my league. The gold fittings certainly beckoned, though. At last, I gave in and took it into my hand.

If sugarplums could take flight on the strings of fancy, this is the way the Kittel danced with me. With all the beauty of a promised land I was forbidden to enter, it sang. I felt a tear welling and a slight lump of the throat, and then I quietly set aside my longing and simply reveled in the moment. I was having a glorious fifteen-minute affair with the bow of every girl's dream.

1 reply

Third Time's the Charm?

December 23, 2011 00:29

Relatives draw me to Pennsylvania, but wanderlust draws me to Philadelphia. Twice over the past two years I have been thwarted in my attempt to visit Fred Oster at Vintage: once by an unexpected holiday, and once because of... well, another holiday. I have bad timing, I guess. This time, however, I succeeded in setting up an appointment for an instrument trial. I like to view it as a casual blind date with several potential candidates, with no obligation toward commitment. Also, I'd like to make some East Coast connections for future reference while I'm there. And also, there's a couple of great deli's and bakeries, and who can pass up the perfect cannoli? Not to mention the sfogliatelle...

As an added bonus, I get to head over to my friend Karen's house first, and she and her daughter Caeli will accompany me downtown as my guides. We have such great fun, and even though I've only gotten to meet her a couple of times, each time it feels as though we've always known each other. Philadelphia feels just a little bit more like home because of her.

Cross your fingers and wish me luck!

4 replies

Paper Dolls

December 21, 2011 21:31

Upstairs, in my parents' game room where no one would really hear our dialogue, I lay the two instruments out on the sofa and dug out my recording device. First the Flemish. During the warm-up, I noticed it possessed a rather sensitive personality, and liked lots of bow speed and little weight. I doubted I would get much in the way of projection from it, but that sweet, woody tone! I played a Mozart passage, recorded it from across the room, and then picked up my modern Italian: such bold clarity! Beautiful, singing voice... I stopped the recorder and played it back. Both sounded nice in different ways. However, the Zanetti projected more clearly.

Then, I spun out a couple of fiddle tunes, up close to the recorder. Playback: the Flemish sounded sweeter and better suited for celtic and bluegrass, but once again, the modern Italian brought some nice clarity to the party. I chose a different passage--Bach this time--and ran across the room for another long-distance take. Back and forth, back and forth, this one, that one...

And then, a strange thing began to happen. After listening to the third or fourth recording, I began to forget which one was which, and they both began to sound very similar. I don't know if it was because I began to adjust the two manually to make them sound the same, or if my ears were getting tired. Either way, my decision suddenly became clear.

When all is said and done, two different instruments of similar quality--even when taking into consideration a considerable age gap, distant birthplaces, and opposing voice qualities--seem to have very little impact on the distinct personality of the player. Each violin had something that the other did not, but nothing changes the fact that it's the same girl wearing each outfit. Take some scissors, cut along the lines, fold the tabs, and have some fun with each pretty new ensemble, but in the end, not even a magic violin will make Emily Grossman sound like anyone but Emily Grossman.

In conclusion, my most practical option at this time would be to stick with one instrument and keep saving my money to help broaden my options. Who knows, I may never meet the perfect sound. I know I haven't found it yet, but I am just as happy as ever with what I've got.

I just hope I don't fall head over heels one day with the one that I'll never be able to have.

It's been known to happen.

I suppose I could just stay home...

But what fun is that?

7 replies

I felt guilty for drinking the sauce.

December 19, 2011 20:42

I have now in my possession a 1720 Flemish violin from Dan Lawrence in Kansas City. This is the violin that I couldn't stop thinking about over the past year and a half because its sound was so uniquely beautiful, and I've been wondering if perhaps its aged, warm tone would be the perfect complement for my modern Italian's bold, bright sound. Is it possible to own and play on two equally beautiful, but tonally diametric violins? Perhaps, but is it my wisest option at this time?

There was only one way to find out: I set up an appointment with Dan and road tripped it from Tulsa back to KC for another instrument trial and BBQ review. Oklahoma Joe's hung on the horizon, a mecca in Anthony Bourdaine's review of his top 13 places to eat before you die. If Tony likes it, then obviously, I had to sample some and see for myself.

(Re:OK Joe's: This is the barbecue for salt lovers. I love salt; therefore, I loved the fries and loved the Z man burger: brisket, smoked provolone, and two onion rings on a kaiser roll. George said hands-down best pulled pork ever. I said hands-down best sauce ever. Sides were special, too. Spicy beans, kick-it-up cole slaw. Decent price. Resides in gas station. I'd post photos, but I can't find my camera.)

Post-barbecue, I interviewed Dan about why he chose this violin and why he had it for sale. He said he just fell in love with the sweet tone and found it a real pleasure to play. It sounded a bit different than I remembered it, and noticed it had Pirazzi strings this time. He let me try three different brands of strings on it before choosing to take it out on trial. Nervously, I filled out a form and wished him a merry Christmas, promising to bring it back safely on my way home from the East Coast in a couple of weeks if I decided not to keep it.

Next, I went over to Matt Wyatt's shop to say hi and show him what I had with me. I was curious as to whether he would try to point out flaws and tell me it wasn't worth what Dan was offering. I suspected he wouldn't though: the first time I ever called his shop while searching for bows last year, he had suggested Dan Lawrence and was more than ready to send him my business if I could find what I needed there instead. I tend to trust dealers who are more interested in helping people find what they need than turning a profit off them.

The shop was busy while I was there, and I found it entertaining to sit and watch people coming and going. Some of the rooms are used for private lessons; I could hear a teacher instructing a student on the phrasing of the fist few bars of Vivaldi A minor. Other people were sampling instruments for possible Christmas presents. Matt laid out some instruments and bows for me to try, mostly for educational purposes, since nothing matched anything I might be looking for. I played on a fine German violin and a French violin (Francois?) from the 1930's. Also, he showed me a French bow--one that reminded me of the one I used to have that caught fire--as well as a bow by Rodney Mohr, which was quite nice. A bit rough in handling, but bold in sound. I still like my Nurnberger more than any other bow I've played. We dug around in the bow archives to try to pinpoint which Nurnberger made it. We're still not sure, but I quickly discovered I could read bow and violin catalogues all day long if you let me. All told, I spent about three hours.

While I was fiddling around, he took the Flemish violin back to the shop to check it out. He explained, "It's important you don't end up with an instrument that has been 'hogged out' to make it sound fuller, because the tone will fall flat after a couple of years, and then you're left with nothing but a really thin piece of wood." Fortunately, the wood's thickness checked out, indicating it had not been carved out. It'd had some work done on the bass bar. All in all, though, it would be a safe purchase, if that's what I decided I wanted to do. Regie Williams in Atlanta originally sold the violin to Dan Lawrence, and Matt regarded him as a trustworthy dealer. (In general, I reckon shady business will become more and more difficult to hide with the astronomical increase in communication over the past few years.)

They had a card to give to me. I glanced at the envelope, which had a little Christmas tree and some stars doodled in blue ink across the front. This is when I sheepishly realised I'd not brought anything to give them as a token of my gratitude for everything they'd done to help me and my studio over the past year. I tried to buy a couple of Swing DeVille cd's to show my support, but instead, Matt insisted I keep my money and gave them, along with a bow rehair, to me for free.

With some excellent toe-tapping music accompanying me on the four hour drive home, I had time to think about something I could give them. I don't have much.

I know, I'll send them some snow...

14 replies

It's a Wonderful Lab

December 10, 2011 09:26

Every time we plan our departure for our annual holiday travels, I become an absolute wreck. Conjure up any possible worst-case travel scenario, and I am absolutely certain every single one of them will become reality. And this is not without good reason: you name it, I’ve done it. Lost tickets? Missed a flight? Lost wallet? How about volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and random civil wars? (No, Cambodia, I haven’t forgotten you.) All these and more have happened when I travel.

Thursday afternoon, just hours prior to departure, I should have been packing like a maniac. Still, three times, I found myself pulling my violin back out of its case, petting the strings with my bow, seeking comfort as it sweetly reassured me we would be just fine. Eventually, I did get around to finishing the packing, even though I didn’t really think I would make it to the airport alive; I would inevitably be buried in an avalanche on the way there.

Ben, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck only up until we dug the kennel out and began rounding up his belongings. “I’m going too! Merry Christmas!!!” he shouted with a full-body wag. Yes, Ben, you are going, too. As soon as he confirmed that he wasn’t being left behind, he relaxed into his usual holiday cheer.

I’m glad to have my dog along. He loves to travel, and his well-mannered enthusiasm infects anyone who happens to see him. With that big ol’ snuggly-snout grin and wiggly-wag greeting, he parades politely across the tile floor by the baggage check: click-clack, click-clack. Every person he sees is his new best friend, and in his mind, he is convinced that this is the day that all of his dreams will come true. “You will give me a treat! And you there, you will give me that cool bottle you have! And you sir, you will let me fetch this pen! And then we will run outside and eat snow, and new doggie friends will hang with me down in first class!” His positive thinking works all kinds of wonders. People find themselves submitting helplessly to his chocolate-melting charm.

We settled ourselves in the back corner of the Ted Stevens International Airport, our big happy family: George, Ben, my violin and I. No avalanche to put an end to us this time! Christmas tunes--the old fashioned kind with choirs and orchestras—cheered over the PA. “If you haven’t got a turkey leg, a turkey wing will do. If you haven’t got a turkey wing, then God bless you!”

With a chuckle at the curious lyrics, I stood up. We still had an hour to kill before check-in. Leaving George to tend my fiddle, Ben and I took off out the door, back into the night air. Jogging past taxi cabs, passengers, police officers, and public transportation, we made our way to the end of the building. A light snow had been falling, and our tracks on the clean sheet left a crumb trail we could follow back to our starting point. Before we knew it, we were exploring the random back streets of Anchorage, enjoying the quiet calm together.

“If you haven’t got a chocolate lab, a half a dog will do; if you haven’t got a half a dog, then God bless you!” Playfully, Ben scooped the snow like a pelican as we went. The only other soul we saw was a man on a bicycle--whom I’m sure Ben believed would be his new best friend, if he would just stop for a greeting. He’s no guard dog, but even so, I feel safe. Ben could make friends out of serial killers, I believe. Nonthreateningly, the biker kept on his way.

“If you haven’t got a handkerchief, a hand grenade will do; if you haven’t got a hand grenade, then God bless you!” Nonsense words now. Time to follow our tracks back to the terminal. One of the public transportation drivers honked and waved as he passed. Normally, I’d cringe at the attention and nod politely, but this evening, I spontaneously waved both hands, enthusiastically.

“Hey Ben, look, I’m Jimmy Stewart! Merry Christmas! Merrrry Christmas!” I waved at the police man and the taxi cab driver, at anyone and no one at all. “MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY!”

Hey, some people learn their lessons about happiness from drowning angels. I just so happen to learn mine from my chocolate lab.

9 replies


December 4, 2011 02:14

How many discoveries have you wished you hadn't made first on facebook? Right in the midst of all the repetitive OU/OSU football updates and complaints about the unwanted rain this evening, I suddenly learned that a musical colleague, Mike Lyons, had passed away last night in his sleep--at least, that's the report on facebook. He was the band teacher at Cook Inlet Academy, and an excellent musician. His two children came to me for piano lessons for several years, and he played clarinet and saxophone down in the pit with me in a few of our musicals. In the summers, he and his wife participated in Instruments of Change, a musical program for orphans and street kids in South Africa. Mike Lyons was a good man, through and through. I can't even think of how his wife and kids feel right now.

Music gets lodged in my head. I can still hear that clarinet, his voice. I don't like to think about the fact that it will never be heard again.

3 replies

The Swing of the Pendulum

December 1, 2011 06:33

You can't play a chord progression backward. That would be like opening a story with "happily ever after" or going back in time. Chord progressions, regardless of the particulars, exist with one soul purpose, and this is to lead us to the tonic. They take us Home.

November is over. The pendulum swings; like a scythe, it swings again, slicing a strict cadence that must be minded. In the darkness, we trot along, my dog and I. His steps are quicker than mine, and at the age of eight, he is older than me, despite our similar pace. We are all going home eventually, but the question is, when?

The month has been full of tension and resolve; each story along the way has been filled with its own conflict and resolution. As each day passes, I submit my own contribution, hopeful to bring things to harmony. Sometimes, we hit it all together in rhythm. Sometimes, the phrases leave me reaching for the next note, discontentedly.

Is this why we like music? Patterns of recurring themes in our own life story find their voicing in various instruments, connecting us with centuries of humanity, all echoing in agreement with one another this innate desire for resolution. The music speaks of our tales, eager to discover what lies next, hopeful to see the object of our desire.

Planets rotate. Seasons color the notes with warmth or ice. Everything moves along, setting a scene for the great, perplexing question. We ask it again and again:

Is it happily ever after, or is it?

2 replies

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