August 2012

Sneaking around the House with Bach

August 29, 2012 09:24

The second sonata for violin and harpsichord is a pair of house slippers, to be donned after working all day in the heavy boots of viola repertoire and then spending the evening in the high heels of Brahms. The hour is late, but no one will mind if I indulge myself in this little nightcap--quietly, so as not to disturb the upstairs neighbors. Bach insists that subject need not be forced, and my late night muse enjoys the simplicity and subtlety of a glossy, well-placed note in a properly turned phrase. The bow spins a good yarn. I'm quite content with this bedtime story.

12 replies

Death and the Monkey

August 25, 2012 18:12

Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante seemed pretty straight-forward on the viola--especially when using scordatura and playing in the easier key of D major instead of E-flat major. By playing with the viola tuned up a half-step, the brightness of the open strings would allow it to match the violin's timbre, whose tone adversely would be darkened by the flats. In only a couple of days, I'd hashed out the bowings and fingerings of the first movement, leaving just a bit of polishing to do and some time in the brine to season it up to performance level.

Satisfied, I flipped to the Andante, ready to hoe out some lines and plant some ideas. But instead of tidy little self-explanatory runs similar the first movement, I discovered troublesome phrases that lacked purpose. I fumbled clumsily for a bit and put it away, feeling awkward and thwarted. If I'd had a teacher, I could at least figure out what to do with the bow, or at least they could tell me "Louder here!" "More articulation there!" or something like that. I needed input. Consulting youtube, I dug out a performance by Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman to take notes on their bowings and fingerings. Of course, then my jaw fell off my face: I was nowhere near this level of playing! To an untrained eye, they're just moving their arms back and forth, sticking their fingers here and there, and then these beautiful, expressive phrases come out, simple as that. Anyone could play like that, right? The answer is, unequivocably, no.

Just then, they finished the cadenza, and the orchestra made its reappearance. Something about that C minor chord... What was the impression I just got? I backed it up and listened repeatedly. It was such a vivid, undeniably clear image, the exact taste and color of... of death. Did someone just die? The music so deeply affected me as to haunt me all the way into town. Hopefully, I could change this heavy subject for something lighter to go with my coffee break.

Over an americano, I chanced upon a seemingly random article Laurie Niles had posted on facebook. Apparently, a well-meaning elderly woman, though lacking any formal training in the restoration of fine art, had taken it upon herself to repaint a fresco of Christ that had badly deteriorated. Her intentions were the best, I'm sure, but the result sadly resembled a crude finger painting of a monkey in a tunic. Wow, how would you like to make the global headlines for destroying a work of art with your ignorance? For making a laughingstock of Christ? For being the sole creator of Monkeyjesus? I couldn't look at it without laughing at the pitiful desecration. And then, something suddenly didn't seem so funny anymore. Changing subjects, I checked my email and found an uncannily well-timed note from Michael Avagliano regarding the Andante:

"There's a story, possibly apocryphal, but it makes sense in the timeline of Mozart's life. He was on tour when he wrote the Concertante, and he received the news of his mother's death. The story goes that this movement was a kind of final conversation with her. It is pretty apparent, though, that he tended to reserve C minor for the most somber and tragic works he wrote."

Chills ran up my arms. What an amazing piece, that Mozart was able to convey to an uninformed person like myself such a graphic sensation of loss, and that Perlman and Zukerman were able to communicate it so specifically through their playing that I understood this without ever being told. And to think I'd been tromping around, hacking up those phrases like a hoodlum vandalizing a graveyard! Have I no respect for the dead?

Tiptoeing back into the studio later, I attempted to reverently resume practice, only to be haunted by images of Monkeyjesus hiding around the corner of every phrase. I could barely lay bow to the string without seeing his crude, disfigured mouth and vacuous eyes. What now? Something had to change; I had to get this monkey out of the studio!

Monkey in tow, I reconsulted Itzhak and Pinky, but this time with a different purpose in mind: if the two instruments are having a conversation, then I should listen to what they are talking about. Instead of watching the bows and fingers, I paid attention to how the violin and viola related to each other, noting the underlying orchestral setting as well, which added a context to each phrase. In the margins, I wrote words that would help remind me of these concepts.

Back to the studio. Cautiously bringing the strings up a half step, I finally got to experience C minor on the viola for the first time, and the colors literally unlocked the piece like a decoded secret. This time, instead of putting the cart before the horse and focusing on technique, I focused on the ideas I'd imagined that would fill the canvas with the proper colors and shapes.

Hopefully, the more particularly I envision what I want on this canvas, the better I will be able to find the technique to make an accurate rendition. After all, I want to paint a convincing picture of that final conversation between Wolfgang and his mother. The clearer the image in my mind, the better chance I'll have of getting it there.

I still can't help but wish I'd had a little more formal training, though...

(14:35 for the Andante)

9 replies

Moving Mountains

August 23, 2012 20:31

Over two weeks later and I admit, I'm still basking in the afterglow of the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra's performance. I've played in better symphonies, but I've never been more proud to see what returns could be yielded when choosing to invest in my little widespread community. Take a handful of dedicated musicians scattered throughout a wilderness about the size of West Virginia, assemble them for just two weeks to do battle with Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, and I dare you to accomplish as much as our ensemble managed to produce on the stage that night.

If I wasn't already before, I'm now a believer in magic, miracles, and dreams come true. I kid you not: the three violists managed a perfectly matched solo in the third movement of the New World Symphony. If you don't believe me, I have recorded proof at 24:08. If we could manage a feat like that, I can't help but think maybe anything's possible. What better way to begin the school year, than with a teacher that believes in miracles? My students are in for a real treat.

Now is the time to make things happen, and I'm striking while the iron is hot. Here's my ensemble hit list:

Brahms, horn trio
Mozart, Sinfonia Concertante
Bruch, 8 pieces for viola and clarinet
Villoldo-McLean,"el Chocolo" for 2 violins

You know who you are. Resistance is futile; I will prevail. So, you'd better be practicing. (18 hours so far this week, but who's counting?)

And some day, mark my words, the cellist of my dreams will fall from the sky with a copy of Brahms in his hands. Anything's possible. I believe, I believe...

5 replies


August 21, 2012 19:33

This would be our last night to play together. The previous night's performance in Homer had been a bit shaky in spots because I had so much energy that I couldn't manage to calm down. I also got this deer-in-headlights notion that I couldn't read alto clef, but thankfully, that went away once I realised I knew the music anyway. We made it sound good, but I knew I could do better.

Things were different today. Today, for the first time, I pulled out my viola to run through the parts, and it suddenly sang as my native tongue. All the notes clicked naturally into place, the tone clearly focused, sweet, and deep. After a quick run around the lake to off-load the usual accumulated energy, I donned my concert black, grabbed the peanut butter bars for Susie, a latte for Michael, and an americano for myself, and headed for Kenai High School. First would be the New World Symphony followed by intermission, then Mozart's Divertimento in D and 1812 for the grand finale.

We are facing the audience now, with Susie on my left and Michael on my right. Under the golden brightness of the stage lights, we check our A's at the concertmaster's request. I carefully match my own C with Michael's as the bustle hushes into anticipating silence.

This is it. I've spent a large part of my life reaching for this, dreaming about it, haunted by it. I crave it with such heartache during the long, silent winters under the taunting moon that I cannot sleep. My deepest longing is for musical companionship from someone or some group who can make me play to my potential. I strive for that connection, and in those rare moments when I find it, just for that little space in my life, all is right with the world for a change. I will enjoy this moment, and every moment I can have of it.

The conductor takes the stage. I'm beaming from ear to ear. We are about to give her the performance of a lifetime.

2 replies


August 20, 2012 14:30

The difficulty lies in the ability to take what you know from the practice room and apply it in a myriad of situations. In the studio, where it's quiet and calm, and you have a cup of your favorite coffee and the stand is just so, of course you can nail the tricky passages. Of course you can count four measures of rests and enter with a perfectly tuned A-flat way up there. I could, and did, play my part a hundred times over, just to make sure it was all there.

Some people say I'm easily distracted; I like to say I'm super-sensitive. In rehearsal, I notice when my chair isn't just so and the stand is over there, and my partner's music has different markings. Then go the voices in my head: what was that off sound? Was that you or me? Did the conductor just cue my section? I only counted to three, I swear. What the heck is that note on the page? Is it a D or an F? Wait--neither. What instrument is this, anyway?

With all that static, how can you connect your voice with this string that serves as your medium of expression? Under my fingers, I could feel that light, supple thread, a tenuous lifeline through which I could sing, if only I could clear everything else away. But how? To simply shout "Focus!" only makes matters worse.

I could (and often do) subject myself to hours of self-flagellation following these haphazard episodes. But I shouldn't: this is the norm, and it's not only okay, but good. My theory is that during the rehearsals leading up to performance, the subconscious plays the role of devil's advocate to force the conscious mind to build up the defense mechanisms that will secure success when it counts. It's as though the screw-ups provide an inoculation of sorts for the upcoming show. So I forget the coda. I skip a line. I spontaneously change fingerings and bowings. After all, it's common knowledge that if the dress-rehearsal blooms to perfection, the performance is doomed.

Break a leg. Break an arm, too. Do whatever it takes, so to speak, and get it out of your system; just make sure it doesn't happen come concert black.

2 replies

Sweet Tooth

August 18, 2012 10:31

After lunch break, I came into the sanctuary to find Michael already seated in the first chair position. Wiping the pride off my shoes, I took my seat in second chair and tuned to match his strings. And then we went to work with the Mozart.

If I had ideas about Mozart, they floated out of the viola next to me; we were in happy agreement from the start. Immediately, I set about collaborating with him, aiming to match each entrance, nail each pitch, and taper each note exactly like his, so that we would sound like one instrument. How satisfying! This is what I crave--to be sitting next to a like-minded individual that inspires, elevates, and provides an ideal example to emulate. I couldn't think of the last time I experienced something like this. Not on this level.

As the rehearsal continued, I listened the unique sound that our violas brought to the ensemble. When playing the violin, it's easy to miss some of the wonderful finer details to the inner parts of good chamber music like Mozart. The violists aren't just plugging out a bunch of eighth notes, you know. In my imagination, they're "yum-yums"--lots of gooey, round, crisp yum-yums, like rows of perfectly baked cookies. (Some people might get bored after making a few, but I could go on all day, obsessing over just how good I could craft each one.) All those tasty eighth notes might make a violist fat, but we burn it off with all the extra work it takes to play them on such a large instrument--at least that's what I tell myself! Maybe violas are actually violins that overindulged on the good things in life, like cookies, chocolate, and bacon, and now are responsible for producing the fat, laid-back parts--the tasty Oreo filling of the orchestra repertoire, so to speak.

Whatever the case, we were definitely cooking up something good, and it hit a nerve with our conductor's sweet tooth: she had stars in her eyes! I was giddy. If I could just nail that tasty magical sound in every single phrase, we'd have our audience in heaven next week.

9 replies


August 17, 2012 01:11

Saturday: morning sectionals at Kenai Christian, followed by a full-orchestra run-through after lunch. It would be a threesome, if I could convince Susie to come. "We really need to figure out some bowings," I explained, "and I know I need the extra time on my part. But I'm not going if you're not going. And I don't get up to an alarm, so excuse me if I'm a little late."

"Oh, you'd better not be late!"

Ten o'clock, we all showed up, not really sure where violists should assemble. Arbitrarily claiming a Sunday school room as our own, we arranged the stands and unpacked. This time, I sat my coffee cup on the table behind me, out of harm's way. "I'm not a morning person," I warned Michael. To ease into things, we warmed up with the Mozart.

The Divertimento in D Major seemed harmless enough. Instead of long, intricate sixteenth note passages typical to first violin repertoire, long rows of identical eighth notes took up a majority of the first page. Still, the part came riddled with interesting sections that needed bowings. We played it through, stopping to discuss areas in question. Michael answered with his own ideas: down-bow for emphasis, then up-up to even it out. Let's get rid of this backward bowing here... And this, we could take it up-up like it's written, or we could accentuate the unique bass note here, play it down for emphasis--but it depends on whether you want that or not.

Intrigued, I nodded in agreement. Here was someone who gave me permission--no, orders!--to ignore the uncomfortable bowings prescribed by the editor in pursuit of something more musically aesthetic. I liked his style! One by one, we took out the hiccups and proceeded to the next movement. By the time we reached lunch break, I felt like we had our repertoire running more like a well-oiled machine.

Susie had to go home. After lunch, I'd be taking the stand with Michael for the full orchestra run-through.

5 replies

First Impressions, Second Guessing

August 15, 2012 16:24

The day that Michael showed up to our rehearsal had already been full of mishaps and hurriedness. Running late and wound up like a top. I took my seat, which was way too far away from the stand, and quickly tried to settle in without drawing attention to myself. The room, unheated, provided rather frigid conditions, and no one wanted to take off their coats. Another violist, Susie, would be sitting second chair, putting Michael in the back. Obviously, the best thing to do would be to scoot my chair over my coffee cup and spill it all over the floor. The next thing I knew, I was running back and forth with a roll of paper towels, and Michael hurried to scoot belongings out of harm's path. Together, the two of us worked to mop up the mess. Hello, Michael Avagliano. I'm Emily Grossman. I spill coffee for a living.

Needless to say, I played like crap. What happened to those hours of practice? Feeble phrasing, dodgy pitches, and complete lack of focus plagued me, and I couldn't shake it to save my life. After the first half of our rehearsal, we took an intermission.

Snacks waited for everyone in the break room, and I'd brought chocolate chip cookies left over from our summer camp's lunch. Seeing as how I had this toxic mushroom cloud over my head, I thought it best to avoid contaminating others with fallout. For half an hour, I found discreet ways to avoid chit-chat: knitting another row on my sock, heading to the restroom, again, fascinating myself with another carrot stick... After a bit, I headed back to my seat to tune up for the next session.

Michael was munching on one of my cookies. I hit an A. Slightly flat.

"Did you make theses cookies?" I glanced up. Our eyes met. I saw dark chocolate.

"Yes." Sheepishly.

Cradling the other half of his cookie ever so gingerly, he sighed, "They're soooo good!"

Melting a little inside, I broke a smile. "Thanks."

6 replies

New World, Battle

August 13, 2012 08:51

As usual, the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra lacked string players this summer and wanted me to participate. I'm pretty consistent at declining, seeing as it would take up about five hours each evening, between the 90-mile round trip drive and the rehearsal itself, not to mention the obvious amount of practice time it takes to master any symphonic repertoire. All this takes place during my heaviest cooking load of the year: hockey camp. Working an eight hour shift as a commercial baker is no light physical task.

However, three weeks prior to the first rehearsal, I got an email from our conductor Tammy, saying that they wouldn't have any violists, and she wondered if I'd switch to viola. It would be me and guest-violist Michael Avagliano fromt he Madison string quartet. 1812 Overture? New World Symphony? Michael Avagliano? Sounds like a good story. I agreed and immediately began to schedule nightly increments with my 16" Jay Haide. My goal would be to knock the socks off everyone when I showed up and whipped out Tchaikovsky. Now to figure out alto clef...

Tchaikovsky begins with three flats, then adds three more, then switches to five sharps, then back to six flats, then none, then three. And I'm sure this is why it's so awesome, but it's hard to believe that it matters anyway, because it's so riddled with accidentals that the notes barely obey any key signature whatsoever, unless you really know your music theory and interval training. Then it all makes sense, and sharps and flats aren't any harder to play than anything else, thank goodness. Regardless, I warmed up with Mozart, first, to get my bearings before going to battle with 1812.

Likewise, the New World symphony lives up to its name. The viola part is chock full of modulating deedle-deedles and enharmonic puzzlements, so that each page holds its own share of surprises. But the colors! As I practiced, colors and shapes came so vividly to mind, I could visualize exactly what so impressed him upon his visit to America.

Between the two sensational beauties and the little Mozart gem, I had a pleasant workload in front of me. Not wanting to cheat, I refrained from listening to any recordings so that I would have to read the notes. Gradually, I became obsessed with mastering every single passage, so that hours slipped by effortlessly. I couldn't wait to meet all my violin friends and ace them with my viola.

Even better, I couldn't wait to meet Michael.

6 replies

More Arm Weight, Legwarmers

August 4, 2012 23:03


(That's the sound of me blowing the dust off my blog.)

Don't worry, you haven't missed much, my friends. Since last posting here in May, I held our annual Steele String Studio recital, in which no one was killed, no one suddenly became Paganini reincarnated, but everyone played quite impressively. After that came summer camp and trail running, in which no one was eaten by a bear, everyone ate lots of cookies, and only one person died during Mount Marathon, my favorite Fourth of July mountain race. (Actually, his unfortunate demise haunts me to this day.)

...Hm, what else? It rained a lot. Going against the grain of the lower 48, we scored our coldest July on record and didn't really bother breaking out the shorts for the most part. I knitted some mittens and hats, and I also created some pretty nifty legwarmers, which I think I must show you in a photo attached to the end of this blog.

And so goes the end of summer, in a splash of rain and otherwise uneventful happenings--except for one thing, which merits the proverbial dust-blowing and re-emergence of violinist Emily Grossman (who actually hasn't practiced the violin since May). What news? you ask.

I just finished rehearsing the 1812 Overture and the New World Symphony with the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra.

--Sitting next to fellow member Michael Avagliano.

--Playing... viola.

"I didn't know you play viola!" They all exclaim.
"Ha, well I do now."

It's a blast.

13 replies

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